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. 

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. 

To Boldly Go…

I was already excited that our third day in Washington was going to be spent at the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian, but both institutions completely blew me away with their thoughtful design, amazing collections, and engaging programs. While it was easy to be swept up in the incredible visual experience of the museums, it was even more special to gain insights into what makes them iconic destinations that are so easily recognizable. 

In speaking with two museum educators and two museum media specialists today, I was able to get a better understanding of how the two departments work together to create an experience that goes far beyond the walls of the institution. Museum presence on the Web or on mobile technology can be so vital to teachers, and that point will really stick with me as it is sometimes discouraging when we don’t see immediate returns on the work we’re doing. If it’s out there and accessible, it is likely making a difference. 

Another key take away of mine from today’s visits is that we don’t have to try to reinvent the wheel when it comes to creating programming. Ann Caspari (NASM) explained some of her educational programming techniques in which she uses PowerPoint presentations to enhance story time activities for children. I love this idea and I think something like this would be a good fit at my museum, where we do occasionally host story time for various age groups. 

I genuinely had a fantastic experience getting to see the processes used by professionals in two of my favorite institutions, one that will resonate with me for a long time to come. 

On a museum geek (and just geek in general) note, seeing the USS Enterprise on display at the NASM is literally one of the highlights of my life. 

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.