Friday, September 26, 2008

Why Collaborate? It's No Picnic!

At our AASLH session, Nancy Parsons, educator at the Ontario County Historical Society in Canandaigua, NY, shared her perceptive thoughts about what the Summer in the Finger Lakes collaboration meant to her organization. She discussed how the positives: the chance to network with new people, fresh ideas, differing approaches and numerous strengths on the team. The challenges: the longevity of the process, the number of participating organizations and the many staff changes at all except one (Nancy is from the one museum that didn't have staff changes), the sometimes endless seeming discussions and revisions. Overall, however, like all the project participants, she believed that the positives outweighed the negatives. As she ended her presentation, she provided all of us with a mindful piece of math as a way to think about collaboration:

"Six times six times six," she said. Six museums meant "more of everything--ideas, energy, time, discussions, revisions, geographic challenges."

I'm guessing that the current econmic climate might cause more and more organizations to consider collaborations. As you do, consider both the positive and the negative. It's not just more work or more success, as Nancy noted, it's more of everything. Be prepared!

Above: Picnic in the Finger Lakes, circa 1900, from the Summer in the Finger Lakes project

Saturday, September 20, 2008

It's Never Too Late to Evaluate!

I facilitated a session at the AASLH conference called, Six Museums, Six Years, Six Exhibits, about a collaborative project of six Finger Lakes organizations to develop six exhibitions about summer in the Finger Lakes (you can learn more about the exhibits here). Museum educator Mari Shopsis gave a terrific overview of the evaluation she developed for the project. I wanted to recap her talk here as a great example of how small museums can undertake an evaluation process.

We came to evaluation fairly late in the process, after some extensive planning and then a hiatus while more funds were generated. Mari reminded me that her first questions about the project were variations of, "are you serious? Are you prepared to listen to what people have to say? Is there still any room to make changes based on the evaluation? Yes, I assured her, with some trepidation as I thought about the schedule. After some discussion, our goals were to:
  • Determine whether visitors understand exhibit titles & themes in the same way that exhibit team intended them
  • Provide a picture of potential visitor concerns, interests, and associations with exhibit themes.
  • Provide visitor feedback for exhibit team, allowing team to refine concepts and presentation strategies before finalization and fabrication
We ended up with three types of evaluations that fell somewhere between front-end and formative:
  • One-on-one survey & assessment of visitor interest, administered in three cultural/museum sites across the Finger Lakes
  • Prototype interactive components with family and youth groups
  • Use likely visitor focus group to assess success of “tweaked” titles and concepts
All of these methods were useful and all revealed different types of information. The one-on-one survey--which was done at locations different than the six museums--really gave us information about what people thought the exhibits would be about, based on our descriptions, and how interested they would be. We used that information to re-shape several titles and interestingly, found that the exhibits of greatest interest to the project team were the least interesting to the public (a cautionary tale for all of us). In practical terms, it meant we had to work a bit harder to make those particular topics--issues of public access and the use of Native American imagery to promote the region--more interesting and accessible.

After that initial work Mari then met with a small group to discuss the tweaked titles and concepts. From that discussion we framed all six titles, and all were a From ...To.... construction, such as From Steamboat Landing to State Park, to give a clear sense that these were historical exhibits with a contemporary connection. And yes, they all also had colons, which we had hoped to omit.

I've written about the interactive prototyping in an earlier post. The format Mari developed was incredibly helpful in refining both language and activities. As a result, our final simple interactives connected more strongly with family audiences.

Mari ended her presentation with three conclusions that provide great reasons for evaluation in projects. The process doesn't have to be elaborate and complex, but I continue to be amazed at how few museums choose to interact with their visitors and potential visitors in this way. It's not that hard, but does require a commitment to the process and a willingness to listen--and act upon--feedback.

So remember:
  • It’s never too late to evaluate!
  • Evaluation can help to identify themes that resonate for visitors & concepts or wording that confuse or mislead them
  • In large collaborative projects, an outside insight into the visitor’s perspective can provide objective information to resolve conflicts or help make difficult decisions
Above: Labor Day sack race at a cottage community on Seneca Lake, 2006, Photo by Drew Harty

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

"Well, he never married"

Ken Turino of Historic New England led a fascinating session at the recent AASLH conference about the expanding interpretation (or not) of gays in historic houses. Using examples from both Historic New England sites and others, he explored the ways various sites have grappled with the topic. The title of this blog evidently represents one comment some historic houses have used to deflect questions about their owners' sexual orientation. At Historic New England's Beauport, the summer home of interior designer Henry Davis Sleeper, the full life of the owner has been integrated into the story. At Hull House, in Chicago, the staff undertook the alternative labeling project, where visitors (and web visitors) could voice their own perspectives about labels for a portrait of Mary Rozet Smith, Jane Addams longtime companion. Check out for the weblog to see impassioned discussions, pro and con!

Ken's comments clearly discussed the difficulty of finding what was known, at some sites, and perhaps only surmised at others and the challenge of creating new interpretations. But to me, his most important point was that this work is not about classifying people but helping visitors to understand the whole person at that historic house. That seems to me what we want at almost all historic houses--we want to understand the people who lived there. We may or may not care about that chair they bought in 1853, but surely, most of us want to understand the emotions, the human-ness that connects us to those people who once inhabited those historic places.

Above: China Trade Room, Beauport, Historic New England photo

Friday, September 12, 2008

Hmm...What Do We Value?

While in Rochester, I attended a reception at the Strong National Museum of Play. I hadn't visited the museum in a very long time and I was curious to see the changes. I came away a little perturbed at what I saw in, what admittedly, was a fairly quick viewing, and one done without any kids there.

What bothered me? It really made me think about values. From what I can see, the Strong Museum values plastic and brand names. It felt like a giant temple to consumerism. When you looked at cases, you couldn't tell if they were exhibition or gift shop cases...they were all filled with brand name merchandise. I wanted some acknowledgement that, in American life, there are many, many, people who make do without giant piles of plastic toys to entertain their children. The corrugated cardboard box was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame at the Strong, but that sort of inventiveness and sense of unstructured play did not seem much on display here. I also wanted a greater recognition that there's an incredibly diverse America whose play traditions could be represented.

And that there some way to do this differently, so we could teach kids a bit about recycling, or reusing, or saving...not just purchasing?

I'd love to hear from others about what they--and their kids--think of the Strong. I did hear from several people that their kids, when younger, loved it.

The Strong, to their credit, also values reading--books are everywhere, and cleanliness...the place is spotless. And in spite of, or perhaps because of, all these different values, the Strong Museum has done what few museums actually pull off. They said they were going to change the mission, change the way the museum does business, and change the audience--and that people would come. That's a familiar song, but this museum actually made it happen...but did they sell out to do so?

Above: No images from the Strong Museum, just images from the Norris family archive, of play, with little or no plastic or brand names.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


I'm at the American Association for State and Local History conference this week in Rochester, and will try to blog a bit about what I'm hearing and seeing. To start, I just heard the end of keynote Bernice Johnson Reagon's talk...but she was telling a story about how, during the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, at one point, she wanted to present gospel music. Too loud, too intense, said people. She said, how about inside? We never do things inside? We could, she replied. I thought it was a great encapsulation of what's wrong with many institutions. There are all these obstacles we put up about why we can't do something new. And they're not really obstacles...they're excuses. Many places are trapped in the, but we have always done it that way syndrome... And, if we really care about change, about making meaningful museums and historic places, then we need to work to overcome those obstacles...and to work to not be one those people who are the excuse-makers.

A great reminder...and wow, I wish I could sing like that when I was doing a presentation. Amazing.

Above: Jubilee Singers sheet music, Library of Congress collection

Saturday, September 6, 2008

In a Surprising Place

Sometimes you just don't know where you'll find interesting exhibits. In Peru, as we took a two day tour to the Colca Canyon, we made a stop at the Visitor Center of the Reserva Nacional Salinas y Aguada Blanca. The Reserve itself is an incredible, beautiful landscape...but one that, in a way, hides its secrets. The Visitor Center did a tremendous job at introducing the landscape and the people and animals that inhabit it, and at the same time, making us, as visitors, aware of how fragile this place is.

What made the exhibits here engaging?

It's right outside. Nothing like gaining some knowledge that you can put to immediate use as you go outdoors.

Simple (and bi-lingual) labels. From this one, I know what the swamp is good for--and I want to learn more about what those subsistence products for humans are (and I did learn later in the exhibit). And labels (below) that effectively used questions.

Simple interactives. No computer touch screens, no holograms. This works because it so clearly ties problems and solutions together.

Easy to understand. This two-sided visual (this must have a technical name) allowed visitors to see the seasons.

Most importantly, this exhibit really connected us to the survival of this unique place. In informal conversations with guides and other people, for instance, the issue of global warming isn't theoretical, it's a problem that's happening now, where they live. These thoughtful labels made us think about the future. As a tourist, it's always difficult to be both a part of the problem and a part of the solution. Tourism helps develop a region, but it also irreparably changes the landscape and the lives of the people who live there. I appreciated the reminder of a deeper responsibility.

And what's the take-away for small museums? This was not an expensive exhibit. But the thought and care that went into its development is what mattered. It wasn't just a display of objects or images. It had a story to tell, and through a real commitment to visitor engagement, did so for me.

And, as my colleague Susie Wilkenning will appreciate, for many visitors there, the bathrooms, after a long, bumpy van ride, were clean and available--a plus for any museum or visitor center!