It’s Over!

11 days, 1,650 miles driven, 50 miles walked, and I’m officially done with my graduate degree in Museum Studies. More than that, though, I’ve made new friends, learned priceless lessons, and have had the chance to see classroom principles applied in the field. 

It would be impossible to pick a favorite moment over the course of the past two weeks, but I can’t overstate the importance of pulling these experiences together into one critically important lesson on the art of storytelling. Working with our teams, learning from each other and from museum professionals, and putting our efforts into a creative final project was more rewarding than I could ever say. 

Looking back at my past blog posts, it’s pretty easy to say that I’ll be taking away so many things from this seminar. But, with the video that I helped to create, I’m also sort of leaving something, too. And that is incredibly cool. 

Team bonding at NGA

So, even though the journey to my degree (and the trek around the nation’s capital) was incredibly long and exhausting, I know that I came out better for having done it in the end. I’m looking forward to seeing where the next journey takes me and what stories I will hear along the way. Mostly, I’m looking forward to taking a nap. 

In case you’re interested in that video, click here.


Listening to Our Audience

I’m really glad that my first experience at the International Spy Museum happened during a trip when I was mindful of looking for the ways in which storytelling is presented. I was able to pick out the smaller stories that combine to make the larger narrative and themes of the museum. I could see why designers chose the stories that they did, which ones worked, and which didn’t. The best part of our visit today, for me, was that the specialists at the Spy Museum were aware of what worked and what didn’t, so much so that they could anticipate our problems and praise. This is because of the systems of visitor feedback and evaluation that they have used over the years to gauge visitor response. 

What worked for me: the hidden entrance to a prison

I was glad to hear that they use a variety of methods of evaluation at the Spy Museum, including comment cards and Trip Advisor, where they respond to visitor comments. I do believe that it’s important to not only listen to what your audience says, but to let them know that you’re listening and taking their concerns to heart. As a result of the museum doing this, they are able to better design their new building to suit visitor needs. 

As I work directly with the visitor experience, I can say that I get feedback quite regularly. I always do what I can to make sure that visitors know that I care about what they have to say, and that I will make sure their comments get back to the right people. 

What didn’t work for me: the Rosetta Stone. In a spy museum?

I think my biggest take away from today’s presentation at the Spy Museum will be that accountability in evaluation matters. We always say that we want to be having a conversation with our visitors, and as a result, we have to make sure that means we are taking the good with the bad. Concerns should never fall on deaf ears, even if it’s something that hurts our pride as museum professionals. Like I always say, nothing that we do matters if our visitors stop coming through the doors, and evaluation can help to ensure that they keep coming back. 

Decisions, decisions

Even though I’ve been to the National Holocaust Memorial Museum many times since its opening, it never gets any easier to see how innocent people suffered during that time period and the suffering that still remains because of the memory of it. 

Again, today we tackled the topic of telling the difficult stories, stories that are hard for our visitors to hear. I was particularly struck by the choices that the museum made in terms of content and message of their special exhibition. 

Sign at USHMM

While the professionals at USHMM insisted that putting the visitor in the shoes of either victims or perpetrators is not their intention, it is so easy to relate to the idea of making choices. I particularly liked that the exhibit ends with the question “should I take the risk to help?” At first, I was wondering why the museum would have chosen to place the question at the end of the exhibit as opposed to the beginning, but I think that the idea of neighbors and the inclusion several themes that we can all recognize sort of puts the visitor in that frame of mind from the beginning, anyway. These were just a couple of the USHMM’s choices that shaped my visitor experience. 

I think that my take away from today will be the big theme from the exhibit: the choices that we make affect others in profound ways. The choices that I make as a museum professional will affect my visitors, my coworkers, my community, and other stakeholders. Taking a step back, trying to see issues from a variety of perspectives, working in diverse groups, all of these things may help us to make better choices. As we learned today, we may all make bad decisions from time to time, but we shouldn’t let that hold us back when we have opportunities to choose wisely in the future. 

What’s The Big Idea?

I am always floored by what the National Museum of Natural History has to offer me as a visitor, but this is the first time I’ve been back since starting the program at JHU and I have to say that I was even more blown away by how the museum is set up to ensure that visitors comprehend the big idea of the exhibitions. The most interesting part of the tour, in my opinion, was hearing the thought processes behind certain decisions that were made by the curators and the exhibition specialists in creating the educational spaces in the museum.

The “big ideas” from the ocean exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History

Hans Sues’s enthusiasm for science and museums was not only noticeable, but infectious as he described what the institution hoped for the visitor to be able to walk away with at the end of their visit. I was so excited that he mentioned some of the places where modern museums trace their roots, for example, wunderkammers and P.T. Barnum. I was able to see those influences right away. 
I was also excited to see that the Museum of Natural History deals with many of the themes we’ve been discussing, particularly that of tackling difficult conversations, such as evolution. As with Mount Vernon, this institution wants visitors to be exposed to the truth, but they have done so in a considerate way, relying on science, but also reaching out to spiritual leaders around the world. 

I enjoyed the way this trip built upon my experience at Mount Vernon. Yesterday, my take away was that truthful and accurate interpretation is critical. Today, I would like to expand on that. As Sues illustrated, the “big idea” should be clear to visitors, and as he demonstrated, enthusiastic interpretation can engage even the most exhausted of visitors. 

The Truth, with Dignity and Grace

​How do we face the harsh realities that the historical figures we grew up studying and admiring were probably not the best personifications of the idea that all men are created equal? We tell the truth, with dignity and grace. 

Interpretation, when handled correctly, can be one of the most effective tools at our disposal as museums professionals, particularly for those of us with an interest in public history. One of the most valuable lessons that I learned today, and probably one of the most important of the seminar, is that we shouldn’t shy away from telling the truth, no matter how difficult it is. The trick lies in knowing your audience and how to approach them, and of course, applying a measure of dignity and grace in that approach, as the interpreters at Mount Vernon pride themselves in doing. 

My past experience and my future goals involve implementing interpretative plans in environments not unlike Mount Vernon. I hope to use the lessons that I learned today as a model of being empathetic, but truthful and as accurate as possible. We can’t know what out visitors know or where their backgrounds lie until we start a conversation with them, and we can’t be expected to have the ability to converse if our visitors are uncomfortable in the environments that we provide. Even if the stories that we craft are uncomfortable, we can provide the visitor with a safe and welcoming space to exchange ideas, hopefully ideas that will create a positive connection. 

Museums are for Everyone

Visiting the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and the National Gallery of Art today really opened my eyes to the challenges and absolute necessity of accessibility in exhibit and general building design. All of our experiences this week would have been vastly different if I had any accessibility issues in a museum that didn’t take its visitor experiences into account. Thankfully, all of the institutions we’ve visited so far have done exactly that. 

Picasso at NGA

I can’t imagine someone coming to these amazing institutions and being denied the complete, meaningful experience that I’ve been able to enjoy when I arrive in Washington each day. The Museum in the Morning program at the Smithsonian Institute stands out to me as an organization with programming that goes the extra mile to be a caring member of the community. Going beyond allowing families early access to the museums, they actively seek out families with that need. 

Matisse at NGA

I think my biggest take away from today will be that accessibility goes beyond ADA requirements. It means trying your best to provide a quality experience for everyone who walks through the door. Accessibility should be on equal footing with other needs of the budget if we mean to serve our communities and be an active member of them. 

Warhol at NGA

Our visit to the National Gallery of Art, while not specifically about accessibility, just reinforced the need for accessible collections. If these museums, particularly our national museums, are truly for us, then we should all get to experience Picasso, Matisse, and Warhol. 

We Can’t All Have Pandas

Today was an interesting dichotomy for me as visiting the National Zoo is always fascinating, but completely out of my wheelhouse. Hillwood Estate Museum & Gardens, however, shares many characteristics of the museum that I currently work at: a historic home, a museum, gardens, and the memory of a local celebrity.

I was completely floored by the way the exhibit specialists at the zoo related their daily activities in such a way that it applied to all of us, regardless of the type of museum that we work in. I was particularly interested in the difference between story-based approaches and object-based approaches to interpretation. The example of the panda house stands out in my mind as an effective example of blending the two. 

At Hillwood, we had a chance to explore as visitors before being taught about the thought and efforts that go into exhibit design and interpretation. While the historic home and collection were impressive, it just reinforced what I mentioned earlier in the day: that I prefer a storytelling approach. That being said, the printed program and the audio tour do allow the visitor to experience that and they are wonderful resources. 

Visiting the exhibition in the Dacha was one of my favorite moments of the day. I think this is where things started to click for me. The miniature watercolors and the accompanying labels created a fantastic exhibit experience. I was fascinated and I am very much hoping to get another chance to really explore the exhibit. 

So, while I still like to think of myself as a storyteller, I walk away from today believing that some combination of objects and stories is probably the best path to a creating a rich visitor experience. Also, having pandas never hurts.