Sunday, September 25, 2016

Still Good? A Museum Re-Visit

Have you ever visited a museum again after a number of years, wondering if it will still be as interesting or exciting as you thought it once was? A couple weeks ago I had the chance to revisit Plimoth Plantation, somewhere I had last visited probably twenty years ago.  The memory of that long-ago visit was a lovely one, around Thanksgiving, with my big extended family.  Our kids, now all grown-up, fully engaged with the interpreters, and I still remember how the way one wowed my nephew, who described himself as living beyond the Hudson, by switching to speaking in Dutch.

Would it still be good?  Would there be interactive media everywhere?  Do people still suspend belief at a living history site?  What would I think?  Here's the good news:  I still found it compelling, and found some additional changes that deepened the experience even more.  The better news:  the things that matter are those that any organization can do.  Ask deep questions, seek answers, care about the visitors, and be unafraid to shake things up.

Some of what I saw:

The biggest change is that your first stop in the 17th century is the Wampanoag village.  When I visited before, the village seemed an afterthought to all those Pilgrims.  Now Native people, rightly, are who you encounter first.  But you didn't encounter them without any guidance.  This large clear label, addressing directly, the misconceptions a visitor might have and what is considered respectful behavior, was read by almost everyone as they walked down the path.  The label begins, "Do you have a picture in mind from movies or books of what 'Indian' looks like?"   The change in approach--both physical and conceptual--helped to shift your perspective.

And something I saw over and over again, throughout the visit, was how skilled the interpreters were at meeting visitors where they were.  Here's a conversation about deer hunting, with a tourist from the midwest.  They chatted about bow hunting, about the return of deer to suburban neighborhoods, about recipes using venison, and more.

And here's an interpreter talking to students.  I only heard part of the conversation, when a boy asked if the interpreter gave someone a butt-whipping.  "I killed him,"  said the man, to somewhat stunned silences from the group.  He continued to explain and engage, but the sense that this was no easy place, came through loud and clear.  Below that, a visitor from the UK has a long conversation about where she's from, and where the character the interpreter is playing is from.  Just down the road, as it happens.

A question about a interpreter's bandaged finger, deftly handled, led to a broader discussion about the different kinds of religious beliefs at the Plantation, all the while the multi-tasking women continued their daily chores.

Every single interpreter I met, listened to, or eavesdropped on, was thoughtful, kind, and exceptionally responsive to visitors.  It's the end of the busy summer season and I'm sure loads of those questions (and bad visitor jokes) were ones they had heard many times before.  But they never seemed that way.  I want to know more about their training!

There were some new elements.  Down at the bottom of the road was "America's first test kitchen."  In a house no longer considered accurate, an uncostumed interpreter was testing recipes, on the day I visited, using quince.  The signage outside, her dress, and the printed-out recipe, all easily transitioned you back to a contemporary space and let you easily shift your conversational focus.  A new crafts building outside the village allowed close-up looks at the production of pottery, flies for fishing,  bread and textiles.

As you can see, it was a beautiful day with great light, so I was also struck with the messiness and everydayness of the site.  Reproductions allow the visitors to fully embrace the site:  to see the messy bed, the dirty fireplace, the wrinkled clothes hung up rather than the original draped artfully over the bed. There's no preciousness of artifacts here.

I ended my visit with a colonial meal--that's a peas cod (a sort of handpie),  squash, and some cucumber pickles and left feeling refreshed and rejuvenated in all sorts of ways, not least about the ways in which we can, when we work hard enough, connect with our visitors.

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