Friday, January 29, 2010

Got Conversations?

Just a reminder....the deadline for the Uncataloged Museum contest to win a free registration to the Museum Association of New York/Upstate History Alliance Museums in Conversation Annual Conference, April 11-13, 2010,  is coming right up.  Contest entries due February 10-- get all the details right here.   It's the easiest way to win a conference registration ever!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Screens-On or Hands-On? Thinking about Interactives

My last post about the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow.  There were dozens of activity stations in the museum.  Some were in special interactive areas, others were scattered throughout the galleries.  Some general observations:

Unlike some museums where there are groups of visitors hovering around computer interactives, the screen-based interactives here didn't seem to draw huge crowds.  They were interesting, but I think it was because the exhibitions as a whole were compelling and interesting--that visitors didn't default to that screen.

I was happy to see one particular interactive--this one, with the thought bubbles around the painting.  About a year ago I'd found a picture of it online and had used it in several presentations--and somehow the one picture didn't quite tell the tale.  So now I understand how it works--and although it does engage visitors, I think the bang for the buck is greater with other,  less technology heavy interactives.  Oh, and how does it work?  Using the keyboard, you type the thoughts you imagine each person in the painting is having...and then those comments appear in the thought bubbles.

There were a number of interactives in the painting galleries that seemed designed for very young children, all using some variety of building blocks.  But not just building--really looking at the painting--particularly the shapes and colors, and then placing blocks in the right places, re-creating the painting.  Great skill-building in terms of looking, understanding space and hands-on manipulations.


Three more random interactives.  Top, a spinning series of wheels that encourages thinking about color.  I liked the way words, symbols and images were all mixed-in together.   Center, a depicting a fairy tale painting, where you, in effect, walk into the painting and become the princess on the bed.  And bottom, a very simple interactive where you locate places on the map using plexiglass images.  I am increasingly seeing plexiglass overlays in activities, often with maps, and I think they're great.

And finally, one of the most effective interactives--always, no matter what!  It's simple conversation.  There was a sign here that invited people to talk about Hogmanay (New Year's) and this museum staff member and the couple were having a lively discussion about the differences between Irish and Scottish New Year's celebrations.   It struck me that this didn't really attract a crowd, but I bet that couple went home talking about the conversation.

In the center hall, there was a very busy mini-museum, for small children.  There were animal masks and feet to try on--and so exciting that one small girl left her bright red wellies behind!

What I see in all these interactives is real thought--and I'm guessing there was considerable experimentation and prototyping before the final versions debuted.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

What are They Looking At? The Rare Species--Ideas in a Museum

The Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow provided enough ideas and images to write dozens of posts.  So before I get too far away, and into other things, some additional observations.   In their re-installation, their collections are displayed in two sections,  Life and Expressions.   Needless to say,  each category holds so many opportunities for creative thinking.  Here's just a few (apologies in advance--I can't remember exact exhibit titles, and can't find the info on the museum's website)

Scottish Identity in Art
This exhibition ran the gamut from a traditional portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, armor and guns,  to a Warhol-style image of Robert Burns as Che and a big contemporary photograph depicting a kilted, soccer (okay football) -headed, TV-watching guy in a plaid room.

Everyday Life in Dutch Genre Painting
Well-written, accessible labels explaining the symbolic meaning in these artworks.

Where's It Gone?
Rather than just a tiny label telling you that an object had been removed;  these labels told you why it was gone,  where it would be exhibited and when you could see it--a nice way to acknowledge another museum's work and to highlight the interconnectedness of museum collections and scholarship.

Objects and Media--in the Snow
I don't have a good way to describe this installation where you walked into a translucent box,  with objects,  film, and sounds, to experience the Arctic.  I'm not sure whether it was successful or not, but it was fascinating to be in, and to watch other visitors in it.

Place and Meaning
A number of these unusual sloped installations depicted landscapes from around the world, including Scotland, as a way to explore the ways in which environment affects human life.   In another exhibit,  the earliest history of human habitation in Scotland is enhanced by very large photographic images of the contemporary landscape.

Conflict and Consequence
As the introductory label says, "How we keep inventing new ways of killing people,  and then wonder why."  When was the last time you saw a label like that?  In the exhibit, arms and armor combined with recollections from Holocaust survivors and other information about survivors and peace activists.

One more post to come about interactives at Kelvingrove.   But, as you read this, think about the last time you visited a museum where every single room had real ideas in it.   Any place else I should put on my museums with the most ideas list?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Brief Meditation on Memorials

When visiting Edinburgh Castle, I was most struck by the memorial to the Scottish soldiers who perished in World War I.  It's a big, chapel-like structure within the castle grounds, and inside, battle flags of Scottish regiments and big books with names of those who died are perused by visitors,  made somber by the setting itself, as the memory of that particular war is long-gone.

This week, I spent an afternoon with three former railroaders, reviewing plans for an exhibit about the Lehigh Valley Railroad at the Sayre Historical Society.   My concern with a topic like railroads is that I've misunderstood or misrepresented a technical detail--that I really don't know what a car-knocker does, or how railroad switches work, or whatever.   But, as I finished showing them the plans for the exhibit, one looked up and said, "There's one thing you're missing."   That one thing:  a memorial to those Sayre men who lost their lives working for the railroad--in the shops or on the track.  That suggestion led to a discussion of a few of those men, now long-gone--of not only the accidents when they were killed, but their personalities and foibles--they all became real to me.   And those men, killed doing their jobs,  will be recognized in the exhibit.

Late this afternoon, as the fog rolled in at dusk,  I drove home through the village next to mine, and wondered what was happening.  The main street was filled with cars, state troopers were out--and I suddenly remembered that today was the funeral of a young Marine killed this month in Afghanistan.  Yellow ribbons lined the streets in his memory and Boy Scouts distributed flyers inviting everyone to his funeral.  In a small community like Franklin, I'm guessing almost everyone knew him or his family.  

This all made me think about other memorials I'd seen in museums.   I can only think of a few--and the one that stands out was one to Resistance fighters at a Resistance museum in Friesland, the Netherlands--and the reason again was the personal connection.   I visited that museum with a friend who recognized the family names of many of those honored--and she noted each one as she looked at the individual photos.

Are memorials the work of a museum?  What do we hope that memorials accomplish?  How can we create memorials in museums that stand the test of time--that continue to have deep meaning that transcends the generations? 

Monday, January 18, 2010

Transparency in Black and White

At the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow,  I found these laminated pieces of paper at the entrance to galleries, near the visitor comment book.  At first glance, I couldn't imagine what they were--definitely not an object or interpretive label;  definitely not a temporary out-of-order sign--what could they be?

I was fascinated to look closer and discover that it was the Quarterly Feedback Report--a summary of visitor comments for that quarter at the gallery.   There were 152,877 visitors--and 1078 of them left comments.   The comments were categorized:  positive, negative, suggestions, observations and enquiries.   What kinds of comments? They provided us with some samples:  one visitor wants the welcome sign in Gaelic; another appreciates the seating, and six people wrote some variation of "the whole building is going to waste.  I don't like modern art."

And, with the comments, there is also the section "The actions we have taken."  They don't seem like radical change, but if I were a regular visitor, I might be keeping an eye for that welcome label in Gaelic or other changes.

The museum is a part of Glasgow Museums, a division of Culture and Sport in Glasgow--so it's a government-run museum--and perhaps there are staff who groan at the thought of producing this report every quarter.   I can't think of another place I've seen such reporting--although the Indianapolis Museum of Art does it in a much broader way with their on-line dashboard.   When I was working with museums in Ukraine, I was often asked about museum statistics in the US.  Because US museums are primarily non-governmental, with independent boards of directors, public statistical reporting such as this seems less common and harder to come by.

So kudos to Glasgow's city government for museum transparency!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Questions? We've got Answers!

At the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, I was particularly struck by the very simple labels that had questions--and answers--on them.  Many of these question labels were installed in the simplest of ways--black text on a white background, no illustrations--in the in-between spaces as you passed from the center halls into galleries.

What kinds of questions were asked and answered?  The kind that museum workers take for granted and museum visitors often wonder about.  Here's some examples:

All questions that our visitors have wondered about.   And in other places, answers were provided to questions that might have been asked.  For instance:

Great, right?  How many times have you wondered why something was done a particular way in a museum?   In at least one instance, the question-asking was the frame for the exhibition itself and so had a distinct graphic quality.

 In all of these,  it's evident that the exhibition staff (educators and curators working together, it must be) care about what the visitor wants to know, not just what they, the staff know.  What kinds of questions would visitors have at your museum?

Monday, January 11, 2010

That's a big egg! What messages does your organization send?

One of the places I really wanted to visit in Scotland was the Kelvingrove Art Galley and Museum in Glasgow.  Its redo has been much written about--and I'll write more.  But this is just a brief post about several elements at the Kelvingrove that made it so enjoyable.  These elements don't involve media installations, or expensive design--they are elements whose creation, I suspect, is embedded within the culture of the institution.

First, museum objects and interactives were installed low--so they were easy to see.  In one of the main center halls, along with a giraffe and a Spitfire, a group of big eggs were installed.  I sat for a couple minutes and watched group after group of people--old people, young people, in-between people, stop and take a look at these big eggs.   I can't even tell you what the label said about these eggs, but I do know they were were "spreadable"--their very presence made you want to point and share the egg, the giraffe, and the airplane with the people you were with.

Interactives were also installed low, with benches next to them...and interestingly, all the interactives seemed to be installed on flat, rather than slanted surfaces.   As a result, one mother felt free to set her youngest son down on the counter, while she worked with another.  It made it feel like a place to relax, rather than to feel constrained.

And finally, although there were guards at Kelvingrove, they were really unobtrusive.  You were allowed to take pictures (hooray!) and I never saw a guard ask a visitor to move back, or stop doing something.   The result wasn't that people went wild--the contrary.  It felt like the many people there during my visit--on a busy holiday week-- was a museum meant for them, a museum home.

Think about what sort of messages are embedded in the public parts of your museum--are they homey ones, that welcome people in, or ones that say, "stay away,  only for people who really know a lot!"  or "don't touch"  or "we really like it better when no one comes."    Although clearly the Kelvingrove's staff thought very long and hard about their changes,  the process can be a simple one...what could you put down low for people to look at?  Try it and see.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Be Inspired

Branding--it comes up all the time in discussions.  How do we brand our museum, how do we brand our community?  How does it all work?

I'm far from a branding expert--more accurately, I'm just an observer/consumer of brands.   It's a rare brand (except for the ones of my childhood--Heinz ketchup, for instance) that penetrates through today's noisy haze of images, sound and words.   But while in the UK,  I had a longer term experience with a brand that I thought was really terrific.   The Lake District brands itself as a region--both as a national park and a tourism destination (two different organizations I believe).   I first found the brand on the web, of course, on their website, Go Lakes.   The website did everything I needed it to do for me as a potential visitor:   it introduced me to the region,  told me what there was to do and see,  and even let me make a reservation at a B & B.  I could customize my interests, be inspired, and even download a great Ipod app to let me skip rocks on various Lake District lakes.  And of course, it was up-to-date, even including information about the recent floods.

Once in the Lake District, I began picking up brochures for various things--for villages, like Ambleside or Grasmere, for culture, for outdoor adventures, for eating.  Each brochure was incredibly consistent in terms of its look--the font and color block design was the same, but each relied on beautiful, high-quality photos (paired in interesting ways) and a variety of different tag lines.   Although there were lots of other brochures available, I picked up these, as I quickly learned that they were easy to read and useful.

To expand the brochures, there's a network of information centers across the region.  We happened into the one in Coniston.  A brochure about culture had mentioned Andy Goldsworthy's work in the region (above photo from his website) and we wanted to know more.  Not surprisingly, information centers' greatest asset are the people who work there.  The friendly guide knew about Goldsworthy and where his work was, printed out information on where it could be found, and helpfully let us know that we probably couldn't reach any of the sites because of the snow.

What did I learn about branding from my visitor experience?
  • Consistency is key--the consistency in design and approach cut through other promotional noise
  • Collaboration matters--obviously, the consistency requires buy-in from a whole variety of stake-holders
  • Be fun!   I've shown lots of people my little rock-skipping app,  and the clever use of tag lines on the website and in brochures helped keep us interested.
  • Make sure everyone gets it.  That staff at the visitor center was important--they didn't act bored, or too busy--they were helpful.  So the brand of the Lake District--a friendly, beautiful place--was reinforced by them and by so many other people we came in contact with--in shops, in restaurants, and along the way.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Free Prize Inside!

The Museum Association of New York/Upstate History Alliance annual conference is, to my mind, one of the best conferences around.  It's big enough to attract a wide range of participants  and small enough to have really good conversations with people.   And of course, New York has great museums of all sizes.  This year, the conference has been framed around the idea of Museums in Conversation. Rather than sessions where people talk at you or show yet another bulleted Powerpoint list,  all the sessions are designed as conversations, with facilitators leading what are sure to be lively discussions on a wide range of topics.

But, for the second year in a row, I'll be in Ukraine as a Fulbright Scholar and hence, unable to attend this year's conference, April 11-13 in Albany, NY.  As a sponsor, however, Riverhill still receives a free conference registration (a more than $200 value for non-UHA/MANY members) Rather than let it go to waste, I decided that it should go to a deserving museum worker or aspiring worker like you.  

Here's how to win:
I want to hear about your museum conversations.  The free registration will go to the best 150 words or less description of a museum conversation reflecting both the spirit of the conference and this blog.   It can be a conversation overheard, an imagined conversation among or between staff, volunteers, board members or visitors; a conversation with or between objects;  or a real (names changed if you wish) re-counting.   Need some inspiration about stories?  They're a bit longer, but I love the tales told on The Moth.  I've put together an esteemed panel of judges:  Susie Wilkenning of Reach Advisors and the  Museum Audience Insight blog and blogger Anne Ackerson of Leading by Design will join me. 

What will we look for?  The winning entry will demonstrate a passionate commitment to museum conversation--and a sense of humor won't hurt.  Creativity, imagination, and a compelling story--think of it as an exhibit, if you will.  Images or artwork can accompany your submission if you wish.   Don't want to write?  Consider submitting a YouTube video of 2 minutes or less.

The details:
Email your submission here by February 10, 2010.   By entering,  you give me permission to use your entry on this blog, in whole or in part.  The winner will be notified no later than March 5, 2010.  That's it--not too complicated!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Harder to Do--Guided Tour or Exhibit?

While in the Lake District, we visited Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Museum in Grasmere. Dove Cottage, Wordsworth's home during a productive eight-year period is one of the Lake District's most loved attractions and opened to the public in 1890. The accompanying Museum and Art Gallery was relocated into its current space in 1981. This is an organization with a long, rich history and rich and varied collections relating to Wordsworth and the history of Romanticism.

So why was the museum exhibit so well done and the house tour so boring?

Wordsworth--so what do most people know?  Poet, daffodils, Lake District (I mean you are at his house),  British.  That's probably about it.   Me too.  We visited the exhibit before the house tour, although it appeared that most people went after the tour, but the timed tours led us to head to the museum first.  

What did the exhibit do right?

  • It used the facts, objects and places of Wordsworth's life in combination with his poetry in ways that let the visitor see and understand how he found inspiration in his own life and the world around him.

  • The audio installations were very simple--just a printed version of a poem (here's Tintern Abbey) and headphones.  It was really nice both to see the text and to hear the words spoken aloud,  reinforcing the beauty of both the spoken and written word.
  • The use of contemporary photos helped to reinforce the sense that the landscape Wordsworth knew and loved is still the one that can be seen today in the Lake District.
  • It allowed me to gain not only a sense of the man and his work--but a bit of unexpected knowledge.  Who knew that his wife had written about those daffodils before he did?
What did the guided tour do wrong?   Pretty much everything.
  • Barely welcomed by the guide, the tour began with the history of the house--the group of about 10 or so, including children, were given no sense of who Wordsworth was, or why he mattered.
  • A host of irrelevant and confusing facts:  I didn't particularly care that branches were used as toothbrushes, and cared even less about Mrs. Wordsworth's false teeth.
  • Quite surprising handling of original objects from the guide.  Although we were cautioned about touching anything, the guide touched and opened a number of objects used by Wordsworth.
  • Small displays of objects in each room in tiny cases that looked like they dated from the house's opening as a museum.  Locks of hair, candlesticks, and more.  They had a fun, antiquarian feel, but did little to drive the story forward.
  • Not a single place where the guide asked us if we had any questions. Not one!  And even more surprisingly, at the end of the tour, upstairs, he said, "okay, well, I'll just leave you to look around,"  and went downstairs, leaving us free to roam among several rooms.   

Now why would the exhibit (and a changing exhibit as well) be well-done and engaging while a guided tour was anything but?  A few purely speculative guesses:
  • Exhibits often have a clear planning process, with a beginning and an end.   They present, in effect, a blank slate that can be shaped, through both curatorial and design work, into a compelling narrative.
  • Historic houses are accretions.  In my own work, I've found it rare that a historic site is willing to step all the way back and take a comprehensive look at the interpretation.  So a house becomes a bit like sedimentary rock--each layer and each bit of knowledge hardened into the present day.
  • Personal connections make a huge difference.  If the guide had appeared even a bit interested in his audience, I might have felt differently.  If he had made any effort to engage the young children on the tour I might have forgiven other weaknesses.  I can only hope that it was the end of the season and he'll spend the winter recharging his batteries or that all guides undergo some sort of regular evaluation.
  • Historic houses, more than exhibits,  contain memories of how it used to be.   "But the trunk has always been on the bed,"  I can hear someone saying, whether it ever made sense or not.   There's a fear, I think, of change that doesn't exist for exhibitions.

If you work at a historic site, take a moment and reflect on the last time you really thought about that guided tour or the way things are shown in the house.  Consider how to take a long step backwards to get a clear view of how a visitor might perceive the house.   Your visitors will thank you for it.