Wednesday, August 28, 2013

What's Your Institutional Voice?

August has been a slow month,  deep in book edits,  travel prep and other projects.  But I'm in Los Angeles for a couple days and visited the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles yesterday.  I was struck by the strong, but varied, institutional voice in play in their new exhibitions and other areas.  The old institutional voice is what you might have expected.  Here's a look at the introductory panel to an exhibit about California history (from the '80s from the look of it--and partially closed and perhaps headed towards extinction). Omniscient,  one might say even a little boring.  You get a sense that this institution might be really good and numbering and filing things.
But here are some images--with some new kinds of voices from their new exhibitions.  At the top of the post,  a sign post in the outdoor interpretive space.  Inviting, informal,  inspiring curiousity (and sometimes, just below) a sense of humor.
The new institutional voice makes clear that there are curious, passionate people who work at the museum.  The Nature Lab features cartoon sort of mind-maps of a number of scientists,  telling their own stories of growing up and loving nature in LA.
I mean who doesn't love a guy who loves to look at birds, every day, dead or alive?  But it's not just the natural science people.  In the new dinosaur exhibit,  the palentologists share their work--but not just in dry scientific terms.
And those voices help us with questions.  Some are questions we might already have,  but some might be ones we'd never thought of.  Food on teeth?  who knew?
But vitally, the museum's institutional voice isn't just all all about them.  In so many places it makes it clear that we all can participate in the work of observing nature, of analyzing, of finding out new things.   Here's a big label about a budding scientist:
Here's what you can do to help learn more about LA's wildlife, organized by what you want to do.
And,  in the Mammal exhibit,  an ask for you to think big.  You, that's you.
When was the last time you thought about what your institutional voice was?  Not just what you said,  but what the tone and approach are.  There are still so many museums holding on to a single voice, at a time when we've all become used to a wide variety of choices for our information.  By creating a sensibility,  but opening it up to--and encouraging--all kinds of different voices in ways that go beyond Post-It response boards,  this museum inspired me.  Where have you heard a great museum voice(s)?

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Imagine: Can Your Visitor Do It? Not Unless You Try

As I work with the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center on the re-interpretation of Stowe House, I continue to be compelled and surprised by what we're finding (you can read earlier observations here and here).  On my last visit, I was struck by how willing people are to take imaginative leaps in the service of telling a moving story.   And of course, it reminded me how rarely we do this.

In earlier audience conversations, we found that an enormous percentage of visitors, when queried what question they would ask Stowe herself,  wanted to know how and where she found the courage to write Uncle Tom's Cabin.  So that framework served as the framework for our next iteration of the planning process.  The staff invited diverse groups of participants to community conversations.  These were people who knew the Stowe Center in some way but in general were far more familiar with the Center's innovative programs than the house itself.  An interpreter provided a half-hour tour of the house, and then we sat down to chat.  And as always, my thanks go to the great interpretive planning team of Shannon Burke, Beth Burgess and Brian Co-Francesco for their willingness and passion for experimentation!

In these conversations, we tried yet another experiment.  After some talk about what surprised them and what was memorable, I divided them into groups of two or three,  gave each group a room, and asked them, in ten minutes or so, to design an experience in that room that would carry the idea of courage forward for visitors to the house.   In our forthcoming book about creativity, Rainey Tisdale and I talk about the idea of constraints helping to drive creativity--and this proved absolutely true.  Our constraints here were the room and the idea of courage;  but all the rest of the framework was wide open.

The result:  some of the responses were stunning, poetic and surprising.  There were approaches we had never thought of.  The small groups buzzed with conversation and several weeks after the get-together, a staff member happened to speak with one of the participants, who was still pumped up about the process.   A few examples:
In thinking about Harriet Beecher Stowe's bedroom, which has plenty of natural light and plants, per her and her sister's advice in The American Women's Home, one group played off those ideas in terms of both her writing and activism to create metaphors. The sunlight represented how she shed light on injustice, and the plants, the ways in which she nurtured her own creativity. 

In that same conversation, our notes show a deep interest in the kinds of topics rarely addressed in historic house:
What were her “visions” around Uncle Tom's Cabin – visions while in prayer? While walking? Thoughts she referred to as visions? – What was the depth of her thinking in relation to the topic she “courageously” brought forward? The values through which we perceive reality and make decisions – as people move through the house, give them context of the general consciousness of the period, world view, Christianity, compassion, empathy – what is this all about, and what brought her to speak out? Interested in one person’s consciousness changing the consciousness of many.
In a the next day's conversation, one participant noted about the bedroom,
[It was a] sanctuary, her escape…if she had doubts, misgivings, or was in any situations in her public life that made her uncomfortable, that this would be the space where she could release all of that without being judged or could share that with her husband and get reassurance.
When was the last time you got to delve that deeply into a historic figure's thoughts?  But the ideas weren't limited to a single room.  Another group took the dining room experience somewhere surprising to us.  Their advice was to not have it be the dining room of this house, but rather, to present the dining room as the dining room in the Litchfield house where Harriet grew up in a lively, passionate, engaged big family, and that visitors would, as Harriet did as a child every evening, have the chance to sit down and talk about the big issues of the day, ask questions and learn how to take action to make a better world.  This group's work reminded me that  often we're afraid to think outside the box, to think that visitors will not get rooms of a different period, or be interested in big ideas.

But we're finding pretty clear evidence at Stowe that experimentation is what visitors want. That many long for an experience that requires imagination.  One participant noted that the room-by-room interpretation felt particularly frustrating in talking about ideas, in getting inside Stowe's head.  So when we think about courage at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, we're trying to be courageous ourselves in the new interpretive efforts,  courage we gain by listening to current and potential audiences.

A few other quick notes on historic house tours based on what we're learning:
  • Play down what brings the obvious questions.  Harriet was also a hobbyist painter, like many educated women of her time.  People are surprised at that, and ask about it, but it's a bit of a distraction from the ideas we're working on. We experimented with how the paintings are approached.  When the first painting is encountered,  the interpreter mentions that she painted, as did many women of her time, and then the paintings are not highlighted in every room. This gives space for other topics and other ways to engage visitors, rather than just talking about pretty paintings.  Visitors have more, better questions when we provide more and better ways to ask those questions.
  • Interpersonal relationships matter.   The current tour talks a fair amount about Harriet's marriage and about her large family, but just mentions that she had servants.  Many of our conversation participants wanted to know more about those servants and the relationship she had with them, about the way that her work as a writer was made possible by other women who did the household work.  Research has already begun to further expand our understanding of everyone in the household.
  • And of course, no surprise that individual meaning-making is always important.  Many women are particularly interested in Stowe's perspective on feminism;  those from Hartford want to know more about her relationship with the city;  reflective readers want to sit on the front porch and peruse a book.   We'll continue to puzzle out the challenge of different ways to engage all of the site's visitors.
But imagine.  Ask your visitors to do the same.  When I began writing this post, I googled and watched John Lennon's Imagine,  so I'll end with that video.  Imagine what your historic house could be and invite your visitors to do the same.  Imagine.