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. 

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. 

Empathy & Museums

My immediate impression after the first full day of the Washington, DC seminar is that this will be a time that is going to challenge me physically and emotionally. While touring the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAACH), I was overcome with emotion reading stories and hearing voices that are, in many ways, so far removed from what I am accustomed to. I have had many history lessons about the African American experience, but I have never had such an eye-opening experience in my life. 

In listening to Gretchen Jennings talk about the Empathetic Museum, I believe that rush of emotion that I felt was a thoughtful and intentional move on NMAAHC’s part. As a naturally empathetic person, I absolutely appreciate this effort. As a museum professional, I would love to be able to sharpen my skills at creating empathy in others. I believe that following the Empathetic Museum Maturity Model and looking at NMAACH for inspiration are fantastic ways to start. There are quite a few things that I will be taking away with me from both today’s museum trip and the lecture, including a reminder to myself to be more aware of the sometimes sensitive nature of interpretation, but also an important lesson in how powerful that interpretation can be, even with difficult subjects. Objects, like the wreckage of slave ships (pictured above), are so much more engaging when they are accompanied by the words of a person who experienced these events. While we may certainly intend to take away an educational experience when we leave museums, I believe that a lesson here is that emotions can be used to intensify that experience, hopefully leaving a lifelong impression.