Friday, July 31, 2009

Connecting Visitors to American History

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,
  • Welcome
  • See
  • Experience
  • Discover
  • Marvel
  • Remember
  • Question
  • Imagine
  • Explore

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.


Adam said...


Great post.

I work at Conner Prairie Interactive History Park in Indiana. And focusing in on those emotional stories and connections is what our main efforts have been for the past few years. Specifically in our Museum Theater department, but as a whole - we want to make an emotional connection as quick as possible so that we can draw people in. Only then will you be able to engage their minds.

One part of your post that especially stuck out to me:

"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."

It wasn't a monologue, or a presentation, but an engaging discussion that put the guests at the center of the experience.

Quick question: it seemed like these experiences could have been dealing with pretty heavy topics - did it seem jarring or overwhelming to just happen upon something so deep and heavy? How did the interpreter deal with easing people into the experience, especially young ones who don't think about these things naturally?

All-in-all, I definitely need to make it to NMAH - and soon!

Linda Norris said...

Thanks for such a thoughtful comment Adam. As I think about it, I wasn't even conscious about whether it was easy or hard to draw people in--and it's because the interpreter was so skilled and was really informal, he moved around, even sitting in the audience at one point, and really encouraged all the opinions coming out of the audience. So to me the observer, seemed like people accepted the difficult story pretty well (plus you could easily leave if you didn't like it) but I'd be really interested to hear how diverse audiences react to the presentation--I'm hoping some Smithsonian educator can enlighten us!

Dana Allen-Greil said...

In this video clip of the program, you can hear from the facilitator and the Director of the Program in African American Culture about how visitors react to the sit-in trainings:

Since you weren't able to stay for the whole 30-minute program, you might also want to check out this video of an entire training:

Linda Norris said...

Thanks Dana, so much for these links...I did a new post because I really wanted people to see them!

Anonymous said...

Just fyi, the woman is Mary Young Pickersgill, the woman who sewed the flag (with help from her children) that inspired our national anthem.