Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Attracting School Groups

School visits are declining at many museums and historic sites. The cost of busing and field trips in a tight economy and the emphasis on testing has left little room at many schools for the traditional field trip. This means museum educators are becoming more and more inventive about ways to make their resources useful to classrooms. I'm beginning to see an emphasis on online learning, but recently I spoke with Shirley Brown Alleyne, director of education at the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum in Brooklyn--where their school tours for the school year sell out in September. I wanted to know how they did it and her answers provide useful guidelines for any museum looking to make visiting your site both easy and engaging.

A key element of the site's success is marketing...but it's not marketing that costs a million dollars. Here's how Shirley described her plans:

1. Brochures
I created a new brochure detailing our new on-site programs and pricing. On the back of the brochure, is a chart marrying each program and hands-on activity with the appropriate New York City Social Studies, English/Language Arts and Applied Learning standards. After, I created a marketing plan, using the brochure, to attract teachers for the 2008 – 2009 school year. (Note: Programs have always sold out at the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum. However, my marketing plan expanded our audience to include schools from our neighborhood who never visited the site.)

2008 – 2009 Marketing Plan

Plan A: Identified all teachers brought their classes during the 2007 – 2008 school year. Then, composed a letter discussing the new programs and prices; these teachers were offered a $30.00 discount if they made a reservation by August 15th. These letters and brochures were sent to teachers during the third week of June (one week before school ended). I received ten reservations. On August 15th, I developed a postcard detailing an extension for the $30.00 discount; returning teachers now had until September 15th to make their reservations.

Plan B: Using the New York City Department of Education and New York Archdiocese websites, I identified schools within five zip codes close to the museum. I composed a letter similar to the one I wrote for returning teachers. The letter detailed who we are, our programs and prices. I offered the $30.00 discount to these schools, as well as an additional time for visitation. Schools nearby could come at 12:30 pm and leave by 2:30 pm, walk back to school and dismiss their students. So far, five classes have chosen to come in the afternoon.

Plan C: I chose four zip codes and instituted a Good Neighbor Policy. Any schools within the four zip codes automatically received the $30.00 discount throughout the school year.

Results of the marketing plan: By September 20, 2008, we were completely booked with one class a day, through May 31, 2009; through June 12, 2009 (the last day for public schools to take field trips) by September 30th. Because of this, I was able to hire per diem staff. Currently, I am training staff members, and am now able to accommodate one class at 10 am and another at 11 am. Groups on our waitlist have been accommodated due to the 11 am time slot.

Our Website Searches
I changed the wording of our programs on the website by adding key words such as “New Amsterdam”, “early New York”, “Standards” and others, so as teachers search for field trips relating to New Amsterdam, our site will pop up.

But of course marketing doesn't matter unless your programs deliver. Programs at the Wyckoff House are specifically designed for different grades and learning styles. Pre-school through first grade students learn about colonial life. Using objects, images, storytelling and hands-on activities, students learn about the everyday lives of a Colonial family. Students in Grades 2-7 learn about the farmhouse itself--and the farm that helped to grow food for New Amsterdam. Grades 4-7 learn about an immigrant, Pieter Claesen and explore the reasons why a teenage boy would leave his home to migrate to the New World.

An evaluation form for teachers is accessed via the site's website along with numerous other materials. What do teachers think? Here's a comment from one teacher

The experience was memorable and full of information. My students were literally buzzing with information and questions. The hands-on portions and the experience of being IN an artifact has a really intense impact on my students and I know we will refer to that trip throughout our study.”

The program's success is connected directly to the site's willingness to understand classroom needs, combined with a real flexibility and passionate commitment to work with students. In tough economic times, none of those things cost substantial amounts of money.

Images, top to bottom: Butter churning, Exterior view, and candlelight tour, all images courtesy of the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Perfect Exhibit

Here's an exhibit that just seems perfect in so many ways. Thanks to Design Observer, I found Bye, Bye Blackboard, a 2005 exhibit at the Museum of the History of Science at the University of Oxford. What makes it perfect?

It takes one of the museum's most treasured artifacts--a blackboard written on by Albert Einstein and makes it the center of an engaging exhibit. What makes it engaging?

A bit of metaphor--blackboards, like ideas, and many exhibits, are ephemeral, so we appreciate them while they last. An exhibit framed around one of the most transitory methods of writing makes for a surprising experience.

Some thinking outside the box--the museum asked others to write on blackboards the same size as the one Einstein wrote on. Chefs, authors, musicians, cartoonists, politicians--all shared their blackboard view. A little dash of celebrity certainly didn't hurt.

Fun programming to accompany the exhibit--a talk and chalk series with scientists (and a temporary end to power points!), and a Family Fun Day, "Understanding Einstein," which including a contest for best blackboard explanation of Einstein. And those winners are posted online.

Connecting to a bigger cause--A chance to have your blackboard on display for a week in the exhibit was offered in the Oxford Promise benefit auction, with proceeds to benefit charities working with homeless people in Oxford.

Looking great--sometimes simple is better. These blackboards all looked wonderful and in some ways, far more interesting than the ever-present computer screens in all of our lives.

Top to Botton:
Einstein's blackboard
Blackboard by cartoonist Chris Heath
Winners in the Understanding Einstein blackboard competition

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Winds of History

What a week it was...and the word history certainly appeared everywhere. At the end of such a historic week I thought a bit about both the ways in which history was used this week and about what this election might mean for those of us who work in local history organizations in the future.

Tuesday night ended with both candidates using history to make their point. McCain, evidently a practitioner of the Great Man approach to history, used Theodore Roosevelt's White House invitation to Booker T. Washington to make a point about the importance of the election. Barack Obama took the same bottom up approach he used as a community organizer--a social historian's approach-- and used the story of a single person to make a larger point. For him, 106 year-old Ann Nixon Cooper was a lens for understanding a century of change.

This week, I've spoken to so many people who were a bit stunned, in a way, to find themselves participants in history. My daughter, voting in her first election, described Philadelphia on election night as a "joyful riot." Another friend told my husband that it was one of the high points of his life; still another friend, who grew up attending segregated schools in Oklahoma, called from the road on Tuesday night in happy tears at Obama's election. Whether you voted for Obama or not, the chance to participate in a historical moment that was about joy and progress, not sorrow, was an amazing opportunity.

But what does the future hold? Can the election of an African-American president really change the work we do in historical organizations? Maybe, but only if we make a real effort to do so. It would thrill me if this election meant that boards started looking to represent their entire community in their membership; that all sorts of stories and audiences were welcomed in institutions. One thing this election tells me is that individual stories matter--but equally, individual commitment to a collective idea matters as well. Change in the way that we present and promote history that will only come if all of us who do this work make a deeper, stronger commitment to have organizations that really do represent our communities.

Specifically, what could organizations do?
  • Boards could spend some time looking at the demographics of their community (found easily online at and thinking about how well their community is represented on the board. Seek out new board members that really represent your community--and develop a strategic plan that gives the entire community a compelling reason to participate.
  • Spend time in a board/staff session considering your core values. What does the organization really value? Does every part of your work exemplify those values?
  • Program developers could consider different times for programs--and even for opening times. If, like so many communities, a majority of your audience is composed of families with two working parents, why not have early evening hours? Don't just do it the same old way.
  • Survey! ask your audience (including those people who don't visit your museum) what they're interested in. Try using Survey Monkey. And then, of course, evaluate.
  • Get out there--become a presence in your community. Instead of presenting a lecture series that draws the same audience over and over again, get out to community events. Develop a small table-top exhibit or great selection of hands-on activities and invite yourself to fairs, festivals and the like.
  • It's a tough financial time for many--consider free admission.
  • Don't just pay lip service. Connecting with new audiences is hard, sustained work. As a board, understand that this takes time and money; as a staff, don't get discouraged, but keep trying to connect--and always, keep listening.

One thing is for sure, however. One hundred years from now, there will be an entire generation of curators sighing deeply as they open yet another box with yet another copy of a newspaper from November 5, 2008; joining all those man landing on the moon magazine covers. To my colleagues in the future--good luck with that!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

What Is a Museum?

This past week, several news pieces brought my attention to several museums that are, to put it gently, are out of the mainstream--but still very much worth thinking about.

Above, the director's "office" at the Homeless Museum of Art," an installation set up by artist Filip Noterdaeme. What did he do? The New York Times describes his museum,

In the course of an afternoon, bankers, artists, teenagers, poets and homeless men and women sat on the chair he provided, talking to him during what he called one-on-one “encounters” and “confessionals.” Many spoke about their experiences inside the contemporary art museum, as well as its proximity to the Bowery Mission, which has provided shelter, food and spiritual guidance to the needy since 1879.

“It’s a performance,” Mr. Noterdaeme said of his project, explaining that through it “we are made more aware of who we are and why we are there. I am the strange character opening minds and eyes to these complete separate realities.”

Mr. Noterdaeme’s sidewalk museum, which he dismantled over the weekend, was open every Sunday for five weeks. He spent the time talking to passers-by and handing out signed copies of his tongue-in-cheek “official” letters on the nature and purpose of art, addressed to, among others, a neighborhood resident; Jesus Christ; and Amy Mackie, 34, an associate curator at the New Museum.

In Munich, according to Canadian news sources, a museum opened in a former public toilet, drawing more than 800 visitors its first night. It featured mostly graffiti work, and from reading the article, perhaps more a gallery than a museum--but what made Mathias Koehler, the originator of the project, call it a museum? Did it give it a more serious tone?

More compelling is the newly redone Mind's Museum in Rome (as described in the New York Times) The renewed exhibits were done by an artists' studio that specializes in high tech and immersive environments. “The idea was to make it extremely participatory, a museum that can register and note the impressions of the visitor,” said Paolo Rosa, one of the artists. The museum is now targeted towards students and includes experiences such as one where visitors put their hands over their ears and hear voices; another where visitors sit for a photograph that is then projected next to images and stories of former residents of the former pyschiatric hospital turned museum.

One visitor shared her perspective, "The point the museum makes is that mental illness is a disease," she said. "It doesn't give a moral or a political judgment." But I can imagine the many, many conversations that take place at this museum. It reminds me of a long ago conversation with my daughter and two friends--they were probably ten or twelve, and engaged in a long, thoughtful, exploratory conversation about what made something normal. I think young people long for these kinds of conversations and love the idea of a museum that encourages them.

What all three of these museums say to me is that the idea of a museum still holds real power. But perhaps the power is beginning to shift away from the power of authority to a different kind of power--the power of being a convener, a place for discussion, a place for exploration.

Read more about both the Homeless Museum and the Mind's Museum in the New York Times.

Top: A visitor listening at the interactive sound table of the Mind's Museum in Rome. (Fabio Cirifino/Studio Azzurro Produzioni) Center: Filip Noterdaeme at the Homeless Museum, Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

Monday, November 3, 2008

Deep Listening

Studs Terkel's death last week made me think about the oral history interviews I've done--far fewer, of course, than his, but as I thought about them I realized that for me, they've been an incredibly strong part of shaping how I approach my work. The first oral histories I did were in college, when as part of a volunteer project at a local historical society, I interviewed people about childhood games. An interesting project, and one that involved interviewing both senior citizens and people my own age.

While at the Delaware County Historical Association, I was lucky enough to work with a couple amazing folklorists, Doug DeNatale and Joyce Ice, whose interviewing skills and passionate commitment to their work made each project they worked on a place where everyday people had a voice in each exhibit we developed.

Since then, I've conducted many different oral histories--about vacationing in the Finger Lakes, about factory work, about farm work, and much more. There are several informants whose words still stick with me to this day: the Japanese-American scientist, who only at the end of the interview, tells me about his time in an internment camp during World War II, when he was forced to drop out of college; the Italian-American woman who remembers, decades later, the sting of an employer telling her, because her family was Italian, that she couldn't put American in the space for nationality on her job application; the African-American migrant worker who began coming up on the season in 6th grade--and in his fifties, it's all the work he'd ever known; the woman who shares her stories of starting a union at her work place; and the many, many stories of work on factory and farm--those stories of dangerous, hard work that were almost always equally balanced by affectionate stories of family and community.

Why do I remember these people? Because each one of them gave me a glimpse into a life very different than my own. But at the same time, each and every one also showed me that we are all human, and that what connects us is considerably more than what divides us. So in my work today, my goals are often pretty simple--to find those threads that connect us, past and present, no matter who we are.

Top: Apple picking in western New York, photo by Drew Harty
Bottom: Women workers at Belle Mills, Sayre, PA