Last stop at the International Spy Museum

It is hard to believe the International Spy Museum was the last museum of our seminar. This was my second and most thorough visit to the museum. I find the topic of spies to be really interesting; however, I didn’t feel too invested in the actual museum visit. On the third floor I had a hard time deciphering what objects were real, from pop culture, or replicated. Unlike some others, I don’t have a lot of extra knowledge to bring to the experience, so I’m one of the visitors Anna described, a visitor that needs to be brought into the story through only the content provided. The more I think about it, the images (around the exhibits) used that were from films and other popular culture through me off a bit. In a way I couldn’t trust what I was seeing to be real, and that’s not good. I will say though that the Exquisitely Evil did a great job with the Globe Icon, which is meant to connect the movies to real events.

Anna and Jackie gave a great presentation. I appreciated the insight into what it means to move a museum, and sort of start new. I was surprised to hear how the museum uses trip advisor to collect data about the visitor experience, but it makes sense because the web is where people are going to voice their strongest (and often negative) opinions. I think the content changes to the museum will make the museum stronger and more relevant to our world today. I will certainly be checking the museum out when they re-open in 2018.


Some Were Neighbors

The tour (by Sonia) of Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration & Complicity in the Holocaust special exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum gave me a sense of how a museum can use special exhibitions & permanent exhibitions in specific ways; for example, Sonia said the special exhibitions focus on the WHY and HOW the Holocaust happened while the permanent exhibition is about the WHAT.

I appreciated Sonia pointing out the curators and designers choices, in an exhibit about choices. It also speaks to the quality of the exhibition that the team knows some of the features/choices do not come across to every visitor, but they are still there for those on a tour or for those who are truly investigating the exhibition in depth and looking closely. It was great to look around and see visitors engaging with the exhibit. You could tell that visitors were viewing the mini-films with intensity and concern, not just sitting and staring blankly because they needed a place to sit. There were also several people using the photograph reaction interactive at the end of the exhibit. It is a unique way to create content for the website and get visitor feedback. Of all the choices the team made I thought the photo reveal stood out the most, as well as the arrows on the photographs.

Since we are discussing stories, I have to say that this exhibition stands out to me as the best storyteller of all the museums we have visited, and I think it has to do with design of the space, the minimal selection of artifacts, attention to photographs, the focus on individuals, and the overall theme. I have been learning about the Holocaust for many years now, and I still came away with new perspectives, thoughts, and questions about all those involved. The idea of this triangular connection between perpetrator, victim, and bystander is so new to me, but now that I’ve seen it here I won’t forget it.

Asking all the right questions

The National Museum of Natural History was a whirlwind of thought provoking questions and insightful information and facts. Hans Sues, Senior Scientist and Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology covered a lot in his tour, and you could see his excitement about science come through as he explained the exhibitions Ocean Hall and Human Origins. Although the tour was crowded and often hard to hear it was worth it because all that noise and excitement means that people are in the museum and hopefully learning a thing or two about their planet and the creatures that inhabit it. Hans made a comment that the museum is trying to teach and present facts that may not be present in everyone’s textbooks or education. I think Hans and the museum did a great job of creating a conversation around these difficult subjects by asking a question that anyone can answer, “What does it mean to be human?” Visitors can see the evidence presented and draw their own conclusions. Hans brought up an interesting connection to the topic of diversity. He asked, “How would we treat different human species if they still existed today?” I’ve never personally thought about the different human species in context with the problems of today (or in the past few hundred years or so).

Also, I thought the museum had great visuals, graphics, and interactive materials. The addition of the real aquarium (coral reefs) with “characters” from Finding Nemo is small, but impactful in many ways. I heard children gasp in excitement at the fish tank, and one little girl explaining the “Nemo” fish to her family. There were also parents asking their children to read the signs, and answer the questions. Overall it was an excellent visit.

Lastly, Michael Walsh gave a great lecture. His persistence was inspiring and much appreciated. Michael’s lecture and Hans’ tour both spoke to the idea of thinking globally as an individual. In today’s world we can’t rely on others to save our monuments, historic sites, oceans, and mammals. Everyone has to pitch in and do their part, even if it means being the mediator and creating relationships between disagreeing individuals.

Good choice & bad choice

Mount Vernon has been on my list of museums for a while now, and I’m so glad we were able to go, for the seminar. I didn’t do any previous research on the exhibitions beforehand so I didn’t have any special expectations, but I did expect a Monticello-ish vibe since it was a President’s home; however, Mount Vernon portrayed so much more than just the home where Washington died.

The gardens and grounds were so calming and a striking contrast to the stories told in the Lives Bound Together special exhibition and Christopher Sheels (Jonathan) interpretation. Jonathan’s portrayal of Mr. Sheels was authentic and he was able to connect with the audience to make them feel the truth and see the duality of Washington. The enslaved voice is so prominent at Mount Vernon especially in the Lives Bound Together special exhibition.

Like others pointed out, the entrance doors (with the names) made a great impact on me as a viewer. You can’t avoid the names; the names stop you and make you question why they are there and who are they? As our hosts pointed out, there are a wide variety of visitors, and some do not know Washington’s whole truth. That can be difficult for interpreters to challenge, but Mount Vernon triumphs and I believe they do because as Jonathan said they focus on telling the story (truth) through dignity and grace. I think visitors who didn’t know Washington owned slaves would focus on those names and want to know more.

One thing I would challenge Mount Vernon on is the choice to have a T-shirt in the gift shop that reads: “Property of Mount Vernon” (and a date that I can’t remember). I’m aware that the saying “Property of” is a trend for clothing, but I thought the shirt was inappropriate for that setting, especially since they opened up the estate and museum to highlight the slave’s voice and experience. I could be overthinking the significance of the shirt, but I’m curious if anyone else in the museum picked up on what that might mean to visitors? The museum and estate are telling an important story, and it would be a shame if a t-shirt disrupts that story, even if in the smallest of ways.

Day 5: National Gallery of Art & National Museum of American History

There was a neat similarity between the two presentations today that stuck out to me. Both museums mentioned that their goal was to make people feel comfortable, but the approach was very different for each museum. When discussing the building renovation, Susan Wertheim briefly mentioned how the museum created a mock-up of the stairs and tested it out because they really wanted to make sure people were going to be comfortable. It really blew my mind that stairs needed to be tested. All the stairs I have climbed in my life, and I have never thought, someone put thought and effort into making me comfortable. Susan and Harry pointed out a lot of building design issues that make or break a space and environment. I left with a lot of respect for those museum positions. I also really enjoyed visiting the NGA after the renovation because it was like visiting for the first time again.

Beth, Ashley, Laurel, and Jocelyn also spoke about making visitors feel comfortable, but in a completely different way. I haven’t taken any classes/experience in accessibility before today, but I found it really interesting. The title of Beth’s presentation was: More than Ramps, which was so fitting for what they talked about. I’m guilty of previously associating accessibility with only physical space, but not anymore. Their ideas for inclusion were simple, but made a huge impact on so many families. Mornings at the museum, Access to opportunities, and Project search should be viewed and considered by any museum that is able to participate.



Day 4 Zoo & Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Gardens

Cheryl, Devra, and Catherine were excellent hosts today at the Smithsonian National Zoo. The zoo is really not so different than any other museum in that you have to create content and exhibits that people will be interested to visit. The zoo appears to be in a transitional phase (like the National Air & Space Museum) where it is trying to incorporate the personal human story. The zoos attention to Smithsonian scientists and researchers’ stories at the beginning of the Asia Trail is a good example of how personal stories are being told. The boots on display were an interesting object choice. I would have liked to see more though! The photography exhibit also showcased the elements of human stories. It may not be the zoo’s main attraction, but it shows visitors how the zoo appreciates loyalty. It was really interesting to hear that exhibition design skills can transfer, and that it doesn’t matter if you are designing around a 300 + lb. animal or a portrait of Katy Perry. I liked how the zoo (and Hillwood) are attempting to be more inclusive when it comes to visitor’s needs. At the zoo, they talked about making the bird exhibit bilingual, and my thought was if you can do one why not do them all; however, after visiting Hillwood and hearing the price tag for translations I understand that it is a funding issue not because they don’t want it.

Some things that stuck out from Hillwood were: Guided Serendipity, the three choices for touring the estate- docent, printed, audio, and that it is best to give choices that have equal value, so guests are not overwhelmed. I didn’t find myself enjoying the audio tour because I like the sounds of museums etc. and it completes my experience to hear docents giving tours or other visitors pointing out objects that catch their eye. Lucky for me, they have printed guides. There was a lot of great information from both the zoo and the museum, which makes it really hard to sum it all up in these short blurbs.

Engaging the youngsters and then some

Ann Caspari and Jenny (I hope I’m remembering that right) from the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) and Dan Davis and Ed from the National Museum of American Indian (NMAI) all gave interesting informative talks about engaging the visitor, especially younger audiences.

I have not been to involved with museum education so far in my museum path, so it was a little bit of a shock to see how much goes into planning storytime with 2-8 year olds. It really is all in the details: toys, crafts, subject matter, exhibition space, monitors off vs. on, and skipping sensitive material. Ann had great methods for keeping the children’s attention, and it was neat to see how she could take their attention from the pages of the book to the actual objects. The “active learning labels” were also great additions to the objects. I was especially interested to hear how the museum changed to include stories first as well as add a bit of human connection with personal stories. The app was probably my favorite thing about the museum. I really thought I would dislike it, but after playing with the features it really grew on me.

Dan David and Ed also had some really great ideas to reach young audiences. I found it interesting how they used YouTube to see what kinds of media kids were watching. The introduction video they made for Native Knowledge 360 was entertaining, intelligent, informative, with the right amount of humor. I can picture my 12-year-old niece watching that video, it really looks and sounds like the types of videos she picks out on her own.

Some other quick things that stuck out from today:

The NASM’s team approach to exhibition design.

NASM being inclusive to children, but not exclusive (the exhibitions do not look or feel like a pre-school playroom).

Finding “nuggets of information”

“Why should I care?”

Sometimes museums have to be aware that people may not only have no knowledge of the subject but the wrong knowledge, and that can be difficult.