Sunday, May 31, 2009

Throwing Open the Doors: Visitor Friendly Museums

This past week, I visited three museums that exemplify the simple ways in which we can make our museums places for our communities. It's not about giant capital projects or fancy flat screen TVs at the entrance--it's really about the spirit of the people who work there.

The Erie Art Museum in Erie, PA is housed in a very imposing classical art museum building. They do have a big capital project for a new entrance now underway, but two doors down is a unique part of the museum. The museum operates an art and frame shop. The shop provides the museum with framing, but also does contract framing for the community. However, as the museum director, John Vanco says, "it's also a part of our educational mission," by providing guidance and resources for conservation-appropriate framing for the community. As you enter the museum or the frame shop, the people who work there just seem happy to see you. They welcomed all visitors, answered questions, and just generally made it feel like a place for everyone.

The Art Museum also has an active folk art program and folklorist Kelly Armor works extensively with a diverse local community: basketmakers from Burma, bobbin lace makers from Slovenia, blue grass musicians, Korean watercolor painters and many more. Erie has, for its size, a large number of refugees from around the world and the museum has played an active part in making Erie feel like home.

At the Lewis H. Latimer House in Flushing, Queens, director Vivian Warfield has big plans and is taking simple steps to engage her local community. Like many New York City historic houses, the house is in a very small park, but surrounded by an intimidating fence. How to cope with that? New banners are being made to hang on the fence--in English, Korean and Mandarian. And when she's at work, Vivian opens both the back and front gates, so passersby can walk through one of the only green spaces in the neighborhood. She's also taking Mandarian classes so she can work more directly with her Chinese neighbors. Latimer, an African-American inventor, has a complex, surprising story, and one that will resonate with anyone interested in technology, African-American history, or the all American story of struggling for success.

A rainy day visit to the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum in Brooklyn reminded me that interpreters, those people on the front lines, are the people who make a visitor's experience memorable. The Wyckoff is a small (so small that the staff offices are in a nearby trailer) Dutch farmhouse in a now fully urban area. Into this tiny farmhouse, educator Shirley Brown-Alleyne and her staff squeezed four school groups at once--almost 120 students--and provided a substantive experience for all.

What made the experience compelling? Each interpreter approached the subject matter--everyday life--in their own way. Corry was a quiet storyteller--starting from the kids' own knowledge and experience. "How do we keep our food cold?" "What kind of roots do we eat?" He always kept his voice low, and rather than having a big line waiting to use the butter churn, he smoothly integrated the switch to a new student churner within ongoing conversation about spinning and weaving. Katrina used songs and full body movements to engage her students--while provided context about Brooklyn as a farming community.

Shirley told me that Ella Mae, another interpreter, would have learned all the students' names by the end of her time with them. And sure enough, she did--and had also learned which of the students, in the incredibly diverse class, were not yet English speakers and had enlisted some of their classmates to serve as translators for them, gently providing time for that to happen. Ella Mae's dramatic voice explaining ink-making and students signing an 18th century oath of allegiance, made it seem like they all felt part of a dramatic moment.

But most important, I think, is how she connected the Wyckoffs to this class of immigrant students--from Pakistan, Peru, China, Guatemala and everywhere in between. She talked about how the Wyckoffs remained Dutch and became American--just like their own experience and that of their parents. "What do Wykoffs [now a broad, sprawling family] look like? Everybody in this room." This place became not just a place for venerating Dutch ancestors, but connecting a long-ago story to the lives of those who visit.

I'm sure most of my readers have visited a museum where it felt like visitors were either an intrusion or just cash cows. It's a tough time for museums, no doubt, but it's a tough time for lots of people. As I think about which museums will emerge from these challenging times, I'm beginning to think that it will be those museums who figure out how to do more with less--and that the more needs to be about connecting to community.

If you work in a museum, spend an afternoon working at the front desk or observing visitors to see if your museum is visitor-friendly, and what low-cost changes you can make. You might be surprised.

Top to bottom:
Students at Wyckoff House
Erie Art Museum
Latimer House
Welcoming school buses at Wyckoff House
Corry and a school group, Wyckoff House

1 comment:

Sabra said...

Thank you for this inspiring post about museum staff acknowledging that our world -- and their audiences -- are changing. And in doing so, they are engaging with new audiences and very possibly changing young lives with their positive interactions.