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.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Out of Order

I know it's an eternal challenge to keep interactive exhibits working, but it seemed a bit ironic that the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History was the one place I visited in Washington where I saw numerous non-working elements, with a selection of signage.

At the top of this post, your run-of-the-mill out of order sign. Below, a box with an empty hole. Not sure whether this was really something out of order or just something removed.

This one's a bit hard to see--but on the left below the case is a lever that you pull to see how something makes something easier. On the right, no lever--it presumably was there at some point, otherwise the interactive doesn't work--but where could it have gone?

Do you really care what we think when there's no paper and no pencil?

And, finally, something that really did work. This interactive encouraged you to use everyday things to create a maze for a ball to work through. These two boys were enthusiastically trying different combinations, evaluating and redoing the maze over and over. Maybe they could be put to work designing ways to fix the exhibit!

Sorry for such a negative post, Smithsonian. There were other parts of this and other Smithsonian museums that were thoughtful, engaging, and working. More posts to come.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Surprises--good and bad--at Washington Museums

This week I'm in Washington for the Fulbright Orientation and have managed to squeeze in some museum visits. I found some things to love, some things to annoy me, and some beautiful surprises, all of which I'll get to in future posts.

For now, something I loved: the courtyard at the Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery. The enclosed (and very cool and pleasant on a hot steamy day) provided an beautiful respite place--and clearly others found it the same. In the late afternoon, in the courtyard, people were having meetings, reading, using the computer, talking on cell phones, sleeping, flirting, eating, listening to quiet background music and more.

As people entered the space, virtually everyone stopped, looked around, and sort of let out a deep breath--and then relaxed. A beautiful addition to the city and a great testimony to the power of design and place.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Are We Worrying About the Wrong Things?

Two different online posts/queries came across my inbox today which made me think about where museums might be headed. The American Association of Museums posted a Facebook link to a newspaper story about two museums in Fort Worth, the Kimball and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. At the very end of the article, the author shared a tip: how to sneak into the latter museum and avoid the $10 fee. Responses to the article, in general, were about the moral and ethical implications--legitimate concerns, but perhaps masking the real issues. On Museum-L, a query about allowing photography in museums drew numerous responses--most of them in favor of restricting all photographic access.

I'm certainly not condoning sneaking into anywhere, but I think we need to think about why this is. Like many of my museum colleagues, I've worked at the front desk, and have, on occasion, answered the would-be visitor's question, "Is it worth it?" And yes, as a visitor I have stood in front of a museum, wondering if the admission was worth it (but no, I've never asked a front desk person that). Elaine Heumann Gurian has written eloquently about her belief that museums should be free--and that our admission costs are the single biggest barrier to connecting to our communities. In Great Britain, where museums are supported to a much larger degree by public funding, free admission has resulted in millions more museum visitors.

So perhaps we shouldn't be angry at the author of the article, but continue to think more deeply about how we can encourage all of our communities to either support museums the way they do libraries--free to all--or to ensure that the experiences we offer are valued by those who pay for them.

That photography post? I like to take pictures in museums--I appreciate my colleagues' work and often want to share it with others as inspiration. I like to see how visitors interact, how beautiful spaces can be, and more. Perhaps two years ago, I heard a great session at AAM with a speaker from the Japanese American National Museum. An anime exhibit, designed to attract younger audiences, was curated by an outside curator who insisted that visitors be allowed to take photographs in the exhibition. The staff was initially a bit dubious, but relented. Why did he insist? Because then visitors would blog about it, post their pictures on Facebook, and put cellphone videos on Youtube--and then more people would visit. The result was just as he predicted. More visitors--and more visitors going through the entire museum. And, if you think visitors are obeying that dictate--just do a quick search of "sneak museum photo" on Flickr.

I've been reading several articles about a new book, Free, by Chris Anderson. It's about the online marketplace and the paradox of making money from free things. (and a caveat--I just found an article that shows that some of Anderson's passages are lifted directly from Wikipedia without attribution and Anderson has admitted the mistake) I've not read the book yet, but a brief article in this week's Newsweek provides a summary which makes me want to learn more--and perhaps provides a way for museums to think about their place in the market:
  • Win-win freeconomics. Monty Python gave away some free clips on Youtube. The result: their Amazon sales up 23,000 percent.
  • The cost of online infotainment is distributed so that it's hidden or so distributed that it's imperceptible.
  • Companies trafficking in ideas (that's us, right?) drop prices as the execution of said ideas gets more efficient.
  • And perhaps most importantly, says Anderson, "there's no going back." A new generation assumes free access as a given.
In the name of protection do we risk becoming irrelevant?

And by the way, Free can be downloaded for free here.

Top to bottom:
London museum, by Kaustav Bhattacharya on Flickr
Tokyo museum ticket, by kimnchris on Flickr
On exhibition at The Hyde Collection

Monday, July 13, 2009

What I'd Like to See this Summer

I always have a long list of exhibits and museums I'd like to visit--longer than I ever have time and money for. It seems like, despite the recession, there's a long list of intriguing opportunities. Some of what I'd like to see:

The new museum building and exhibits of the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City.
Although it officially doesn't open until later this year, visitors this summer can access sections of the permanent exhibition. MOCA was the place I saw one of my most memorable exhibits--about Chinese restaurants in America, and I look forward to seeing their innovative minds at work in a beautiful new space designed by Maya Lin.

Manhatta/Manhattan at the Museum of the City of New York, a natural history of Manhattan, a place that is perhaps an archetypal urban place. The website begins with a great question--in effect, the big idea for the exhibit, "Have you ever wondered what New York was like before it was a city?" The content-rich website is intriguing, with downloadable materials for teachers and an opportunity to explore the city block by block.

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, Scotland. I used an article about the re-thinking of Kelvingrove in my course last spring and was fascinated by the community-based approach. Rather than chronological approaches, the museum developed themes that crossed disciplines such as Cultural Survival, Life and Expression and Conflict and Consequence. There's many images of an installation in the center hall of floating heads which make me want to visit a traditional-looking museum that would do such an installation in their main hall.

Common Threads at the Smithsonian's American Art Museum. Artist Jean Shin uses castoffs to create monumental installations--her latest show includes one called Everyday Monuments using trophies donated by Washington, DC residents. You see watch the installation process through a series of photos on Flickr.

All of the renewed Brooklyn Children's Museum. I sometimes find children's museums a bit removed from the communities they're located in (except for the ubiquitous supermarket name) and I'm very interested in seeing how this always thoughtful, engaging museum has created World Brooklyn, a new exhibit that highlights the borough's incredible diversity.

And finally, not a museum exhibit but an art installation: The One and Another Project by artist Anthony Gormley on the Fourth Plinth in London's Trafalgar Square. Every hour, 24 hours a day for 100 days, a person, selected via lottery, steps up to the Fourth Plinth--an empty pedestal--in Trafalgar Square to do whatever they want--and the result, perhaps, is a portrait of today's Britain. Check on the website--you can put up a picture of yourself (or your pets, or a sign that says This is not Art) on the plinth, and watch live streaming video of people on the plinth. Today, a guy in a gorilla suit, and many others! It's oddly compelling and fascinating to explore the lives of everyday people.

As I made this list, I realized what interests me today about museum exhibits is when I can see creative minds at work. Whether it's an artist, a historian, an exhibit designer, a museum educator--I like to see places where the energy of those who work there is evidenced in the way the museum chooses to interact with the public.

Given that as a criteria, what other museums and exhibits am I missing this summer?

Top to bottom
View of Manhattan, Markley Boyer/Mannahatta Project, Wildlife Conservation Society
New entrance, Museum of Chinese in the Americas, Libero Romero/New York Times
Kelvingrove, via Flickr
Jean Shin installing her work at the American Art Museum, via Flickr
World Brooklyn, from Brooklyn Children's Museum website
Plinth Postcard

Friday, July 10, 2009

Do You Have a Museum Card?

This week, I stopped in at a small coffee place on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. "Are you local?" asked the woman behind the counter. I answered no, and she said, "Oh, if you were, I wanted to make sure you got one of our coffee cards, so you could get a free cup after 10 cups." It made me think about why museums can't work harder for their frequent visitors. I know, I know, that's why you become a member. But maybe there should be a different model--one that isn't just looking for your membership dollars but encouraging you to visit more often, on a regular basis. Could museums offer a free visit after 10 visits, or a free cup of coffee in the cafe? I might like that more than laying out the money for a membership--and over time, you might get more money from visitors like me.

I also hear more and more from visitor surveys and focus groups that they're looking for places in museums to relax, explore and chat--just like a coffee shop.

I could only think of one museum that has anything similar (and I'd love to hear about other examples). The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, NY. Admission at the Hyde is free, but if you're in grades K-6, you receive a special Discovery Card--which gets punched during each visit, just like a coffee card. On a second monthly visit, kids receive a bin for art supplies--and from then on out, each visit, anytime during the month, they receive a free art supply (different each month). This program, supported by local businesses, provides an incredible way to turn young people into life-long museum visitors. The education staff estimates that they've given out hundreds of bins.

All photos: Peru, 2008

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Passionate Work

I had a nice lesson in passionate work over the weekend. With a friend, I went to see her teen-age son and his two band-mates perform at a local theater. The audience was very small--at mid-day on July 4th. Even so, it didn't matter to them that no one was there. They enthusiastically and passionately performed their own songs and covers to an almost empty theater. I was struck by how much they cared about the music, and thought about several other museum colleagues for whom music is an integral part of their lives.

I also thought about about the passionate volunteers I come in contact with--the ones who spend their Fourth of July distributing audience surveys at a local street fair, for example. Or my mom, whose enthusiastic embrace of local history in Hagerstown, Maryland became a passion for the past ten years (and who I know will find another new passion in her new/renewed hometown).

Are passion and creativity linked? I've been reading A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can be More Creative by Roger von Oech (recommended by Anne Ackerson on her blog). I spend a fair amount of time thinking about interpretive projects--and I don't want to think the same way about each project. I want to bring different ideas and perspectives to the table each time.

So von Oech provides some great ideas for avoiding staleness and conventional thinking. For me, I think that's one way to maintain that passion for work and avoid what he calls becoming prisoners of familiarity. Some of his suggestions:
  • Changing contexts is a way to discover the possibilities of your resources
  • Change the wording of your questions
  • Think in metaphors
  • Fall out of love with a cherished idea
  • Ask what if
  • Imagine you're the idea
  • Have fun and play
  • The hand stimulates the brain
  • Keep free time for exploring

We put a few of these into play at an interpretive planning meeting at the Chapman Museum in Glens Falls last week. The museum is beginning work on a new permanent exhibit on local history--but wants to try something very different than the usual local history timeline exhibit. We talked about what Glens Falls would have been if the lumber industry had never existed; we put our hands to work building some little interactive prototypes; and we talked about finding time to explore other museums and ideas.

Another piece of advice from the book? Let a random piece of information stimulate your thinking. That's what blogs are great for. I'm always looking for new ideas and information on blogs and other places on the web. That's one way, for me at least, to keep my own passion for the work I do.

Top to bottom:
Alex and Dylan. Hear their music.
Changing contexts: Maria Prymaschenko animal being carried on the street
View of Glens Falls, New York State Archives
Log interactive brainstorming, Chapman Museum

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Did You Ever Wonder?

This week, a project that's been almost two years in the planning makes its debut in Montgomery County, Maryland. I'm pleased and proud to have been a part of Montgomery Connections at the Montgomery County Historical Society and think the story of its development provides some guideposts for how local history museums might approach their future.

The original idea for the project was to produce a series of Spanish-language posters about county history--about agriculture, about the Civil War, etc. At an initial consultancy, the staff and I talked about Montgomery County's diversity, its importance as a high-tech corridor outside Washington, DC, and the high percentages of working mothers and people who spend substantial time commuting. All that suggested that getting people to visit the historical society's exhibits and historic houses was going to be a difficult thing.

At that time, fall, 2007, cell phone tours were beginning to be a part of the landscape, but definitely not as common as they seem to be today. So we came up with the idea to produce portable free-standing banners on the topics, that provided just a taste of a topic and a phone number to call to learn more. The banners and the audio segments were to be in the three languages most widely used in the county--English, Spanish and Mandarin-- That idea was fleshed out into a successful application to the Institute of Museum and Library Services (which also helped leverage other local and state support) and the project got fully underway (the project was begun under the society's long-time director Mary Kay Harper and fully embraced by the new director, Debbie Rankin, after Mary Kay's retirement).

Montgomery Connections, as the project is now called, has many facets: portable banners with cell phone numbers to call to hear a brief audio "visit" about the topic and the individual portrayed; bus shelter ads; print ads in English, Spanish and Chinese community newspapers, Facebook and Twitter; and a website. Four topics are introduced today; and an additional eight topics will be rolled out through the end of 2009. And why did you ever wonder as the headline? We're hoping it makes people curious to learn more.

From my perspective as the project consultant, what did we learn?
  • The value of evaluation. We conducted both front-end and formative evaluation (done by consultant Catherine Harris) and in both cases, the knowledge gained was critical. We found that certain topics resonated deeply with all groups--the Depression, in particular. We also found that images and information from popular culture were pervasive in people's understanding of certain topics. Did our original historic photograph showing someone during the Depression show someone looking "poor enough?" Did John Higgins, our Civil War character, look too much like Abraham Lincoln? After considerable discussion we came to think that the opportunity to show authentic, local images that challenge stereotypes was a distinct benefit to the project.
  • Make connections for viewers. Not surprisingly, we found that the most interesting topics were the ones where the participants found ways to connect the historical story to their lives today. That's why the Depression resonated with so many. We rewrote text to reflect that tie and hope the connections are clear to viewers and listeners. We also found that viewers needed, in addition to an image of a person, a context photo of some sort--so banners were re-designed (all the banner and advertising design was done by Lisa Tait of Silvertop Graphics) to include that additional image.
  • Real community outreach is hard. No real surprise here, but I think we all underestimated the time this project would take--to recruit and conduct focus groups, to translate and proofread materials in Spanish and Mandarin, and a host of other details. Debbie Rankin, Beth Hickey, Joanna Church and Karen Lottes, all of the MCHS staff, squeezed in time for the many parts of the entire process. Sometimes it seemed like our to-do list only got longer!
  • Collecting your community's history should be a never-ending business. By that I don't mean that we all should be in the never-ending business of collecting undocumented, poor condition petticoats and wood planes; but that we should be in the business of collecting the stories, images and objects that have real, documented connections to all of the people in the places we live. The website and audio segments both have a feature that allows readers to share their own stories.

  • "Each step in this project opens a door," said MCHS director Debbie Rankin at one point in the process. This entire project--focus groups, translations, recruiting voices for the audio recordings, finding locations for banners, getting the county executive to introduce them--brought MCHS staff to new places and people in the community. In a county of almost 1 million people, people to people connections are more challenging than small towns--but it can be done!

We're be learning for the next six months or so about how the cell phone audio works--if people actually call. But more importantly, will this project lead new visitors to the museum? Here's the mission of the historical society:
The Montgomery County Historical Society (MCHS) is dedicated to encouraging the County's residents and the public at large to discover their common heritage. To achieve this, the Society uses its historic resources (historic buildings, artifact and library collections, educational programs) and fosters partnerships with others to create a shared sense of place in a changing environment.
Nothing in that mission says that the discovery of a common heritage has to be done at the historical society's physical headquarters. In these too-full days of modern life, perhaps all the history a busy working mom or dad has time for is standing at the bus stop. Does that matter? I don't think so. It may spark an interest that lies dormant for a bit or it might just provide a little bit of respite in a busy day.
Based on that mission, I'd say whatever means the historical society uses to reach its residents is great. It's a huge step from that all-too-familiar refrain at local history museums, "well, no one ever comes..." The Montgomery County Historical Society has, through this project, not just thrown open their own doors inviting people to learn more, but walked out that door into the community.

Want to meet our first four characters?
  • Visit the Montgomery Connections website
  • Look for Yarrow Mamout, Blanche Cook, Fred VanHoesen and John Higgins on Facebook and Twitter
  • Call to hear the audio for all four. In English, call 301-296-5603, in Chinese, 301-296-5604; and in Spanish, 301-296-5605.
Top to bottom:
Blanche Cook, the Bethesda Farm Women's Market and the Depression banner
Yarrow Mamout and Slavery advertisement
Banners unveiled on July 1, 2009 with MCHS staff and community members
Courtesy the Montgomery County Historical Society