When I visited the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History last week, I noticed, though it was a bit unobtrusive, a sign on either side as you entered. It said, simply, in a list,
I found, as I walked through the museum, that multiple efforts had been made to carry these ideas to visitors and the most effective way, to me, were the ways that on-the-floor museum staff connected to visitors. Several Touch carts were stationed at different locations in the museum. One, in a main entryway, had stereopticons to touch and talk about with a staff member. Another, in an exhibition on slavery, had an interpreter sharing traditional musical instruments used by African Americans.
But one effort in particular provided me with a compelling and meaningful experience. I saw a number of first person interpreters while I was at the museum. Betsy Ross or another seamstress, was just wrapping up a presentation underneath the Star-Spangled Banner when I entered, and a World War II soldier passed me in the hall. I had walked by the Greensboro Woolworth's lunch counter, where a young group of African-American students conducted a sit-in in protest of segregation in 1960. Earlier in my visit, I noted a sign that a program would begin later. I returned, just as a museum staff member introduced a participant in the lunch counter protests. Down the hall, singing and carrying a sign, arrived a young interpreter.
This interpreter was everything you wish for in connecting with museum audiences. He was compelling, moving around the audience, speaking informally (no lecturing!) and connecting the story of the protests to larger issues through the skillful use of inquiry questions. Why did the students protest? Who says we can't eat here? What says we can? What does non-violent protest mean? To take an entirely random crowd of Smithsonian visitors, young and old, from around the US and the world, in a busy hallway space, and engage them in a discussion about how all men are created equal, was a wonderful thing to see. The program never lost sight of the big idea that the lunch counter exemplifies.
Time didn't permit me to see the entire program, but I had a quick chat with another staff member and understand that audience members, at one point, actually have to make choices about where to sit at the lunch counter.
I'd love to know more about how this program was developed and what kinds of audience feedback they get. But for now, I received a few take-away messages. First, as a museum visitor, I got a rare chance to think about a big issue, about courageous individual actions and why they matter. Second, for me as a museum person, I was reminded how important it is to find those compelling stories in our collections and develop ways to connect them emotionally to visitors. And lastly, I was reminded how hard, sometimes, it is to tell that we make a difference in museum work. It might be years before some boy or girl in the audience remembers that compelling talk and decides to take a stand on their own.