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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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.