Last week I spent a day at the Old Manse, in Concord, MA. It was a gorgeous fall day and our goal for the day was to consider interpretive planning in the context of this site, home to Hawthorne and Emerson, and a place of great conversation. I had designed one observational time into the day, but we found ourselves with room for two, and both reminded me that all of us, individually and collectively, need to make time for observation in our daily work.
Everyone took a brief version of a multiple intelligences quiz and then were assigned, solo, to go out into the landscape and create an experience that facilitating learning for an intelligence different than themselves. Above, that's Danielle Steinmann, interpersonal learner and director of visitor interpretation for Trustees (formerly known as the Trustees of the Reservations, the organization that manages the Old Manse and 105 other properties), contemplating an activity for intrapersonal learners. Individually, the experiences proposed ranged from a complex and fascinating activity using music, math and the weight and length of the stone wall as a performance to providing visitors with stakes with the word "golden," much beloved by Hawthorne, so they could place them around the landscape. I hadn't necessarily thought about this as an observation assignment, but all the participants took time to look deeply at the landscape around them in creating their ideas.
But then, on the spur of the moment, we found ourselves coming up with another idea. A school group made it complicated to work in the historic spaces of the house. But we could see all sorts of people outside: dog walkers, a mom with kids in Halloween costumes taking pictures, and more. We wondered about them. Why do they come? What are their interests? We quickly brainstormed three questions and the team spread out across the property to chat with visitors for just thirty minutes. These kinds of conversations are a different kind of observation than looking at the landscape, but perhaps even more valuable. The team met members, met someone who considered Thoreau a hero and met still others who were just looking for a nice day out. Below, Christie Jackson, Senior Curator, talks with visitors. And the best part? When we gathered back together to share our observations, the team was so excited! The observation and connection with visitors was rejuvenating--a reminder of why we do the work we do.
Don't say you don't have enough time. It only takes a few minutes. Take some time every day to observe--not just in your museum but in the world around you. And my own top discoveries for improving my own observation skills? A Fitbit that gets me away from the computer and the chance to share my looking on Instagram. So step away from your desk, grab a colleague, and head out there.
I'll leave the last word on observation to a regular visitor to the Old Manse:
We must look a long time before we can see.
— Henry David Thoreau, "Natural History of Massachusetts"