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.