Sunday, December 30, 2007

Aspects of Comfort

Nina Simon, at Museum 2.0 has been writing about aspects of comfort in museums. She describes a program she attended, saying, “It was the kind of experience I wish I had at lots of museum programs—the staff and the content pulled me out of my comfort zone, engaged me in something unusual, and made me feel great. 

 How can educational programs at museums push the boundaries of comfort to support these special experiences?”

She then, provides readers with some suggestions. I thought I’d try to apply those suggestions to projects I’ve worked on, attended, or heard about—both good and bad.

“By sending people on missions.”
The mission might be simple—a new tour at the Van Alen Site of the Columbia County Historical Society takes visitors (and five fascinating characters) on a day in June, 1754. There’s no real mission to solve, but the journey is what matters here. And, most historic house tours—the least mission-like of anything—perhaps a forced march is the better description. The this is a that and that is a this tour is guaranteed to make anyone want to bail out of a mission!

“By giving people roles.”
An easy one for historic sites. Sites are about people and have stories embedded in them. Again at Van Alen, on a school tour, students are asked to take on one of five characters who intersect in time and place. It’s amazing to watch a fourth grader, playing an 70 year old Dutch farmer in 18th century America, reflect back on his life. He said, looking out the window, “It’s been good and bad. Good, I built this house and have a family; bad, I’m getting older and can’t see what’s happening outside.” This role playing wasn’t complicated: no computers, no fancy costumes, no audio installations, just a strong desire to connect the past with young visitors. I think museums have a critical role to play in developing empathy among our visitors, a quality sometimes all too lacking in our culture.

And by the way, we might look to various performing arts groups to better understand how meaningful this can be. Several years ago, the high point of my teenage daughter's trip to London--for her and her friends--was a performance at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. Why? Not because she'd read it in school, or saw a movie--it was because Anna and Sophie had, for several summers, performed in an annual summer Shakespeare workshop for young people. Thanks, West Kortright Centre for making Shakespeare live for so many young people in our part of the Catskills!

“By making it a social experience.”
I think about this in terms of my work at the Upstate History Alliance where I developed professional training activities for museum staff. Particularly memorable were several sessions of the Museum Institute at Sagamore, an intensive four day retreat. Museum professionals sometimes forget that our work should be fun. At Sagamore, one year, Bill Adair of the Rosenbach Museum and Library challenged participants to create a theatrical performance based on items in the Rosenbach’s collections. It was an amazing group of materials—Marianne Moore poems and Joseph Cornell boxes, a list of slaves written by Thomas Jefferson, and more.

As Nina writes, “ There is strength in numbers.” So all of us, including presenters and participants, armed with tape, paper, markers, and our own energy, stood up on a small stage and shared our perspectives. From a talk show that used narratives of whites captured by Native Americans, to a powerful visualization of the slave list, the efforts were amazing—and they were that way, in part, because we made it fun. (And by the way, although I haven't attended any, all of the Rosenbach's programming sounds like fun--check out their annual Dracula parade).

“By training staff and lecturers as listeners.”
Again, back to historic house tours. At one site that will remain nameless, the staff assured me that their evaluations showed that their visitors loved the very long tour. Except one, they said. What did that one evaluation say? It said, “Please God, make him stop!” Not a listener. I often work with small museum boards and start by asking each of them to describe a memorable museum experience. Nine times out of ten, it’s not about the object, or the house, it’s about the person they interacted with. “So interesting,” they say, but what they really mean, I think, is “so interested in me” and able to connect a visitor’s interests with the story of the place.

"By couching the experience within a comfortable environment. "
Nina Simon has written about several science museums that now provide engaging science programs on a regular basis in bars. Why not? Why do we have to sit on uncomfortable folding chairs in a room that’s too cold or too hot? Why are programs scheduled at times that are, in these busy times, challenging to make? I remember hearing about the Historical Society of Saratoga Springs several years ago—they found that although Saratoga has a huge influx of people in the summer, they weren’t getting attendance at their local history programs. However, the race track—the draw in Saratoga—doesn’t open until afternoon. The historical society changed their program time to the morning—and attracted people who were looking for something to do before going to the races. Comfort isn’t just a chair, it’s place and time, and of course, it’s how welcoming we are to our visitors. How often have you been to a small museum where your appearance feels like a burden? Where they seem surprised to see you? And then, of course, if you happen to arrive within an hour of closing time, the front desk person is grumpy. Be nice!

Top: Puck, in a 1980s version of a Midsummer Night's Dream at the West Kortright Centre, 2007.
Above: Interior of the Luykas VanAlen House, Courtesy of the Columbia County Historical Society.

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