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. 

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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.