Thursday, May 14, 2015

Any Questions? at the Oakland Museum

Last week, I visited the Oakland Museum, whose work I've heard about since I was a graduate student.  So much to think about, but one particularly take-away for me was the number and variety of visitor feedback stations.  Questions, questions, and more questions, and almost everyone had loads of Post-it feedback and almost none had that sort of dopey, teen-ager kind of feedback that often surfaces.  Feedback stations were scattered across all three parts of the museum--art, natural history, and history and care was given to the visual presentation of each one.

What's in common with these stations? 

One, the visitor--that's you-- is always at the center of the invitation. "Share your story,"  "How is the drought affecting you?" "Tell us your thoughts." "We want to hear from you."

Two,  the questions are interesting--and sometimes surprising.  "What does the California's border evoke for you?" is a far more interesting question to ponder than "what do you think of immigration?"

Three, there's space in the exhibitions for changing questions:  "How is the drought affecting you?"

But equally importantly, throughout the entire museum, a visitor can see that they are important, that these voices matter.  Just a few quick examples.  First, this panel from Tell Me Where the Mirrors Go, a project of Maria Mortati and the Guzman-Mondragon family, first-time visitors to the museum, who, over the course of several visitors, explored the museum and shared their impressions.  It's not just temporary notes, it's a concrete sense of visitor voices in the art gallery.

And again, a sense that visitor voices really matter in this audio installation and this label for a poster from the 1960s.

And finally, as you enter, the biggest place to share your voice--a giant blackboard at the museum entrance.  When we arrived, this staff member was just posting a question for Free Fridays, but when we left, it was filled with responses.

I'll definitely be thinking about these (and the many others I photographed here) the next time I work on feedback stations.  Thanks Oakland Museum!


  1. Just goes to show that you don't need a lot of money to engage visitors -- but you do need opportunities to encourage engagement using engaging (and not the same old dopey) questions. I can see any historical society doing this, if they had the mind to do it.


  2. Anne--I'm always telling people the lesson I learned from you--that ideas don't cost money--and these are great examples. Absolutely anyone could do.

  3. Lori Fogarty and her team were gracious hosts to last March's Council of American Jewish Museums during our annual meeting, and we had a terrific up-close and personal look at the many engaging ways that the museum puts the visitor at the center of the experience.

  4. Can you imagine the engagement of the community of this museum from the 1970s? People camped on the roof/lawn, smoking dope and figuring out how to change the world. In the 21st century the sentiment is the same though the methods a different and there is less smoke in the air.

  5. I love that giant blackboard. I'm not a museum worker - I'm a museum visitor - and I would LOVE to be able to write on that.

  6. Mary, great to see that the spirit of experimentation and ideals is really embedded in a culture--makes me want to understand more about how they continue that; Marsha, so glad you got to see up close, this really is just a taste of so much interesting work; and History Anorak, I agree--it was SO appealing! Filled (within reachable distance) by the time I left.

  7. I love how the Levine Museum of the New South uses questions posed on sticky notes in each section to invite visitors the past with the present -- a fantastic (and inexpensive) way to prompt them to consider why the past matters.