Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Back to Holland

Well, not really, but finally a minute to post some photos of exhibitions in the Netherlands. These are just elements I liked--for design or for content or for both. Above, at the Amsterdam Historical Museum, a great way to combine a map and objects in a way that really draws the visitor in.

Conversation spaces: this one is at the historical museum in Devanter. It wasn't a large museum but the exhibits each had small spaces like these where you could sit, talk, and explore materials.

A focus on stories about real people. Again, at the Amsterdam Historical Museum, a circular installation that told the story of a number of Amsterdam residents, with objects, photos and, as I remember, audio installations. The second photo, a close-up view of a woman who had worked as a domestic.

Using your imagination. This may be a little hard to see, but at the Doll and Toy Museum in Devanter, this room was devoted to toys about transportation. The airplanes cast shadows on the ceiling and a little platform with binoculars provided a fun way to look up close at those objects.

Full immersion. That's Rembrandt's wife's bed, at left, and the Amstelkring, a hidden Catholic chapel from the 17th century. The opportunity to fully immerse yourself in a historic space, not bounded by ropes or guided tours made me, and I think other visitors, imagine ourselves back in time and space.

Just great design. Here, a great looking game table from the Toy and Doll Museum in Devanter.

Using a familiar item in a new way. Dollhouses--we all know what they are and how they work. Here at the Amsterdam Historical Museum dollhouses were used to show the floor plans and living situations of various public housing projects over time. A potentially not-so-interesting topic presented in a really accessible way.

And finally, connecting past with present, and at the same time, connecting with the visitor. Here, a photomural of the most Dutch of Amsterdam activities at the Amsterdam Historical Museum. And speaking of the present, how many museums do you know who also feature an installation of a coffee shop, Amsterdam style?

What great museum ideas have you seen lately?

Monday, July 21, 2008

Just a Place to Gather

I've been noticing lately conversations around the idea of museums as gathering places. In my thinking, I've often thought of this function as relating to the idea of museums as places to discuss hard issues, to talk about topics that may be hard to talk about anywhere else. But lately, it seems, that people just want a place to connect with other people. I visited the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA over the weekend. The difference between two exhibits was striking. The permanent exhibit was about Rockwell's work: the work that's so familiar to all of us. The other exhibit was contemporary political cartoons by Steve Brodner. If I hadn't seen it, I might have guessed that the buzz of conversation would be greater in the political cartoons. But instead, those rooms, though filled with people, were very quiet, while the Rockwell rooms were alive with conversation. A simple sheet provided by the museum helped families search for people in the paintings, and I heard many other people reminiscing and connecting with the images.

In the same vein, my friend Wiske Beuker in the Netherlands sent me this note about the audience for the exhibit Passing on the Comfort that I worked on:

"Around the table many old friends meet unexpectedly and people do start to tell their own stories, remembering the war and the help they got themselves or gave themselves."

The table was a last minute addition to the exhibit, but a provided a comfortable place to sit in a way that encourages conversation, has allowed visitors to share those long-ago stories of World War II.

Nina Simon, whose blog continues to be my favorite museum reading, reported on attending an IMLS conference on museums and libraries in the 21st century. Much discussion about whether museums or libraries can become "a third place," a place for conversation and engagement.

My experiences this week have made me think that this will happen through small steps: a conversation around a Dutch table about the importance of helping others in need; a mother explaining what those old bathing caps are for (yes, in a painting at the Rockwell), and in a corner of the otherwise empty educational space at the Rockwell, a mother reading a book to her son.

On the one hand, it makes me wonder why those spaces are so needed in American life. Is it just too hard to find conversation places and topics amid shopping malls, television and the web? On the other hand, it makes me realize how easy those steps can be for museums. It's those small steps--places for conversation and staff that encourages it-- that we should be encouraging and finding places for in our museums.

Women workers employed as wipers in the roundhouse having lunch in their rest room, C. & N.W. R.R., Clinton, Iowa, 1943, FSA/OWI Collection, Library of Congress.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

More on Not Boring Houses

Responses continue to trickle in to my various queries about historic houses. I greatly appreciate everyone who shared information, perspectives, their own visitor experiences, and requests to share what I learned. As I'm sure many of you know from your own work, attendance at historic house museums is declining, in some cases precipitously, so much so that many, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation, feel it's a time of real crisis. For some interesting reading, take a look at the Trust's Forum Journal, available partially online for a summary of a forum held last year addressing the issue.

So, although sometimes I do find historic house tours boring, the larger question for me is to further explore why our visitors (and our non-visitors) find tours boring and which historic sites have successfully engaged visitors of all types. For a visitor perspective, check out Connecticut Museum Quest, where Steve (who I don't know, except from reading his blog) is visiting all the museums and historic sites in Connecticut. Some trends have emerged: some historic sites (the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, for instance) have successfully become places of civic engagement, where real issues are revealed and discussed by visitors. Interestingly, on the Tenement Museum's website it says, "Guided Tours are the Heart of the Tenement Museum."

At other sites, such as the Anne Frank House, a powerful narrative becomes the primary way to engage visitors (through a carefully designed self-guided tour). At still other sites, the chance to fully be immersed in a historic interior or a landscape, unmediated by guides, ropes or other interpretive material is what seems to attract visitors. Kettles Yard, in England is one place that's been mentioned in this context; Great Camp Sagamore, in the Adirondacks, where you can actually stay in the historic buildings, is another. At still other places, the experience may be primarily an aesthetic one.

At still other places, I think visitors greatly appreciate the chance to find the similarities and differences between the people of the house and their own lives--and care considerably less, I think, than many museum professionals, about the differences between types of furnishings. Many historic sites have undertaken interesting projects to reveal that sense of universal human stories at a particular place. At the Davenport House in Savannah, special tours focus on a bout of yellow fever in the community; at Chateau de Mores State Park in North Dakota young people to give award-winning tours to young people. At Historic Cherry Hill, in Albany, NY, a carefully scripted and presented tour brings to life a family struggling with the loss of their place in the community. And of course, many sites have done serious, thoughtful work about interpreting slavery and connecting contemporary visitors with those stories of a particular place.

All those exciting examples aside, I think we all know of a historic house, in a community, that was saved because it was given to the historical society, or it was the richest man in town's house, or it was about to be torn down. I think it's a great challenge for those smaller historic sites, not connected to great men, women or events, to find the element--whether it's narrative, or programming, or contemporary artists reflecting on the house's history--that can really resonate with visitors and draw new visitors to those sites. And so in this project, my colleague Kristin Herron and I are looking to find those exemplary historic houses that do a great job at connecting with all types of visitors. So please keep sharing stories of your visits and your historic houses!

Top: The lake at Great Camp Sagamore, Raquette Lake, NY
Center 1:
Guide outside the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, NYC
Center 2:
Historic Cherry Hill, Albany, NY
Bottom: From Steve's Connecticut Museum Quest blog, and originally captioned, "Every historic house has to have...a boring dining room."

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Does Free Admission Work?

Fascinating article and accompanying slide show by Holland Cotter for the New York Times about Chinese museums. I'm intrigued by the fact that the Chinese government made all museums free, and now they have to limit the number of visitors because so many people want to come. When I looked a little further, I found an article and the above picture. It's visitors coming in to the Military Museum of the Chinese People's Revolution where it noted that the museum had 12,000 visitors on the first free day--ten times the normal attendance. I hear the same debate in this country and in Britain they have also made many museums free. I poked around a bit and found some additional information. For the last six years, 17 large museums in Britain have been free (the permanent collections, at least) and attendance has increased more than 60 percent. In France, a new initiative testing free admission for national museums for six months ended June 30; I couldn't find any statistics.

The difference of course, is that in both those countries, governments provide major support for the institutions. When I lived in Washington. one of the very nicest things was free admission to all those Smithsonian museums. I'm curious to learn more about other museums that have gone to free admission. Has it increased attendance everywhere? Does it attract non-musuem goers, or does it just make it easier for dedicated goers to return weekly? Is it sustainable?

It's also apparent that Cotter is very much a traditionalist and describes US art museums as not particularly using media, interpretive text or other methods. Maybe so for some, but at others, say the Brooklyn Museum, a very different type of installation. What he's impressed by though, saying that Chinese museums have alot to teach us, are the many ways in which Chinese museums engage their audiences. It made me want to visit China!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Seen in Amsterdam

I continue to be interested in the ways that different kinds of artists make sense of the places they live and how they connect the past, present and future of a place. While walking down the street in Amsterdam, I saw a shop with windows filled with coffee mugs in interesting designs...I was curious so I checked out the store. It was actually Ittala, the Finnish design store and the designs (above and below) were from the Local Mug Project, also happening in London, Stockholm and Helsinki.

What are the mugs? They're adaptations of a classic modern design, but more importantly, the images on the mugs represent place. The red Xs on the top mugs represent favorite windows in Amsterdam as seen on a map and the blue design is a graphic representation of favorite windows in Amsterdam.

I love Amsterdam's windows--the Dutch don't use curtains much, so you can see amazing spaces and slices of domestic life as you walk along the streets and canals. So this mug project connected my own Amsterdam experience with the experience of others, and if the dollar had been stronger, I would have brought these home.

How might an artist represent those meaningful places in your community? and how might you work with artists to help expand the sense of history and place?

Below: An Amsterdam window, 2007