I found Anna Slafer’s presentation at the International Spy Museum on the museum’s current challenges and the future plans for the building. I find it very interesting and insightful to learn more about exhibit design and the museum’s storytelling approach for a new space. As Slafer mentioned, there is a great opportunity here. I agree with my classmates as we agreed that this 2002 museum felt a little outdated and could be confusing at times. I look forward to seeing the new museum in the future. During the presentation, I found parallels to our first workshop on storytelling by writer Tim Wendel. It felt like a full circle as we wrap up this seminar.
Tim Wendel spoke of structure during storytelling (I blogged about it here). Stories need structure. There is a beginning, middle and end. While at the same time, I have learned that one can be creative with it, just like our final projects. There are structural elements that help you tell a good storytelling; this applies to journalism (Wendel) and museum exhibit design (Slafer). I like Slafer’s point that “a story begins when something actually happens.” I thought of Wendel’s point that action, not movement, propels a story forward. It is now a narrative and not a summary. This is where the title from this blog post, And. But. Therefore., come into play. I will use these three words when analyzing exhibits told in museum exhibits. A.B.T. says that there is a story and something happens but then there is a challenge, perhaps tension, and then therefore there is an answer or end of the story. It found it interesting that not all stories followed this model but excited that this will be apparent in the new Spy Museum. I suspect that even though the museum can not tell every story, if they follow the aforementioned, then they will not need to. People will remember these stories and it will help limit confusion or feelings of boredom.
To conclude the blog, I just wanted to not that I have learned a great deal about museum experiences, exhibit design, visitor experience, and more. I know this will only make me a better museum professional and can’t wait to apply what I learned.
This quote is from our tour guide within the special exhibit, Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration and Complicity in the Holocaust, at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Our guide delivered a great tour of the exhibit as she weaved exhibit design insight and exhibit themes together. While I found many things impactful, her comment about artifacts resonated with me. During this seminar, we have been looking at many artifacts and objects that can tell stories that can have an affect on us. They challenge us, make us pause, strike us with awe, change perspectives, relate to our own stories, and more. I thought the display of a particular display of small rings that our guide pointed out the power of objects when coupled with a story.
Small, delicate looking rings look as if they are suspended in a plexiglass display (as shown below). One of them seems to be missing a part as you can only see the base of the ring. A lot can be said of the rings without knowing much about them. But, after learning their history, it become a more impactful story that tied back to the theme of neighbors making choices. The story goes that a couple, Bertha Herzfeld and her husband Hugo, were deported in 1941 and did not survive the Holocaust. Bertha had gave her gold earrings to her neighbor for safekeeping in the event that she may return one day. The neighbor had a choice to keep them or not to keep them. Fortunately, the neighbor returned the earrings to her daughters and they converted them into the rings to remember their mother.
This touching yet heartbreaking story that revolves around these objects says so much about the time period, historical events, family history, and the choices that people had to make. The objects need to be visible to tell the story since I do not think it would be as impactful with just text on a wall. At the same time too, as our guide points out, it speaks volumes that the family donated these rings to the museum. In a way, museum not only have the great responsibility of preserving and conserving objects and artifacts but also the stories attached. And, these stories keep us connected to the past and keep the memory of people alive for many future generations to come.
During our tour at the National Museum of Natural History today, I thought about how the museum conveys today’s urgent issues related to the Earth. Our guide, Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology and Senior Scientist, Hans Sues, notes there are time sensitive issues that need to be conveyed to visitors. I thought as a museum, “How do you stress that urgency?” I took note of the museum’s displays and the types of messaging displayed in large text. Coupled with the ways the museum’s convey their messages and stories, I thought about their high attendance numbers (50,000 a day!) and the types of visitors that this particular museum attracts: perhaps a number of out-of-town family groups, international tourists, and school groups. How does a museum with one of the biggest museum collection (only behind the Louvre) communicate their stories, especially the urgent ones? I think I may have find some techniques as shown through the galleries we toured today, the Ocean Hall and Human Origins exhibit.
Repetition appears to be key. For example, I noticed a repeat of a display in the Human Origins. This may have been more of an exhibit design feature to allow visitors to get an understanding of the exhibit from any entrance; there is not a designated beginning. Here is the repeated sign:
Both at the front of the entry points of the Human Origins exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History Museum
I found the repetition of the same sign to reinforce the ‘big ideas’ when you exited and it creates a ‘spike’ for the stories told in the exhibit.
Other techniques involved asking broader questions in bold text and often times were the title of exhibit display cases. At times, these questions felt like the museum was addressing ‘frequently asked questions’ but overall, I think they piqued curiosity and interest in the visitor. For example, a banner framing a wall in one of the Ocean Hall rooms asked, “How do we study something as huge and complex as the ocean?” Another use of questions explained how the museum knows what they know. A brief description would follow next to the evidence, which would be the object on display. It reinforces the idea that the museum uses facts and data, solidifying the institution as a trustworthy source.
Finally, bold statements in large font are made throughout the exhibits. I thought of them as ‘soundbites’ that the visitors could take away with them after their visit. Let them know there are urgent issues by just stating it. If thousands of people are visiting a day, it makes sense to have clear, bold statements especially for those visitors there for the highlights and moving quickly through the exhibits. From my own experience of visiting on Saturday, this type of clear messaging gave me a sense of the museum’s main messages and their stance on urgent issues of today such as climate change. Other bold statements empower the visitor as seen below.
Empowering exhibit label on display at the Ocean Hall at the National Museum of Natural History
A label that stresses a sense of urgency for a time sensitive issue, climate change. On display at the Ocean Hall at the National Museum of Natural History
All these types of exhibit designs help convey the museum as a trustworthy place full of wonder and inspiration.
While on the bus ride to Mount Vernon, I had some expectations of what I might see and do while there. I would probably learn about the great American, first president George Washington and his legacy, perhaps I’ll hear about the apple tree story. I knew it would be a different trip than my expectations as soon as I learned that our first stop would be the exhibit, Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. The tour of the exhibit with the curator provided a new perspective and different lens to the George Washington story. At the same time, as a first timer, it guided the way I would remember Mount Vernon and challenged my own perceptions of G.W.
Later on in the day, we met the character actor who plays G.W.’s valet, otherwise known as an enslaved person, Christopher Sheels. In a way, he brought the exhibit in the museum section of Mount Vernon to life on the site of Mount Vernon. He gave a face to a person with no known depiction. His passionate performance in the green house had a few themes that I can still remember, some include: G.W. has a man with two faces, the political and the private, and does anyone want to take his (Sheels’) place? or why would it be ok for me if it wouldn’t be for you?
I thought about how my experience would have been different if I had toured just the mansion, saw G.W.’s tomb, and visited the education center. I would have had a different perspective of our first president. But, I found it more memorable to have learned about him as a complex man, one grappling with enslaved people under his control, through the stories of the enslaved people.We were able to learn about his private thoughts which we learned did not always reflect his actions. Through my experience, I was still able to learn about the history of the site and the daily events while learning the truth about the major population of people living on the site: the people forced to live there. Upon reflecting upon this, I am again reminded the power of influence that museums and historical sites have on the visitor. They can bring stories more to the forefront to shape one’s experience and challenge old beliefs. I learned that character actors can connect with people through stories (not just reporting facts) and, as a good interpreter, make one feel new emotions and think about a life in someone’s shoes.
The place left an impression on me as my expectations and understanding of life on Mount Vernon has changed. In a way, it feels as if for the better. I learned more realistic circumstances of the site instead of the glorified depictions of George Washington, the one that involves the apple tree story.
Wow! What a week: 9 museums, 100,793 steps, and just over 700 photos taken. My head is still swimming with all the exciting highlight objects of the week and the information learned from our amazing speakers and museum staff presenters. During this week, perhaps since I am a first time visitor to the museums, I find myself comparing my experiences and the staff(s) approaches to their audience and exhibits. Today, I compared my visit to the National Gallery of Art (NGA) and the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery (NPG) and Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM).
At the National Gallery of Art, we learned that this particular institution would be considered more ‘conservative.’ For example, the museum has made big leaps with their addition of more visible wall text and allowing visitors to take pictures. I was a little surprised to hear this especially after noticing the wall text stating that the NGA welcomes photos. I thoroughly enjoyed the walkthrough by the curator of modern art and had a deeper appreciation for the exhibits afterwards. But, thinking about our seminar theme, I think the exhibits fall short of conveying the stories envisioned by the curator through the galleries. It was pointed out that the art pieces, in a way, “talk” to each other yet there is no mention of that due to the limited text. I wondered why not have a tombstone connecting two paintings with the same location and within the same time period. I would argue that visitors would need prior knowledge and a certain education background to make the connections. As a visitor without a certain comfort in museums, I think I would this museum intimidating. This is a classic Art Museum. I would love to dig deeper on why there is this resistant to the stories to connect to visitors. I do not think I am convinced that the general museum visitor does not connect on their own.
On the other hand, the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum are art museums looking to draw more people in. The NGA has the luxury of being a ‘new’ building with a newly curated exhibits to draw people in. From our guide, I learned the institutions want to keep their museum open later, eliminated bag checks to appear more welcoming, and holds evening programming. I had noticed they had some texts translated into Spanish. It felt like the institution needed to draw in more visitors and were figuring out ways to do that by being more welcoming and accommodating.
I thought it was interesting to see the different mindsets/approaches within the art museum community. I would be interested to track how the NGA does after its ‘newness’ wears off. Will they need to change their approach to stay relevant? Or will keeping with the same model work?
I’ll add that even though I’m thinking critically of the NGA. I thought the gallery spaces, staircases, and building itself were BEAUTIFUL. I’ll end with my favorite exhibit space at the NGA. I thought it was the best way to capture Calder’s work (along with others, I believe) – light, airy, and emphasizes the whimsical.
Today’s visit to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Hillwood Estates got me thinking more about the power and influence of exhibit spaces. Our speakers at the Smithsonian Zoo had interesting insight into exhibit design challenges and the negatives of outdated exhibits. While the staff at the Hillwood Estates spoke about making the decisions to open up rooms and/or add to spaces to provide a new or different perspective. (I assumed they never changed.) They change or add objects to various spaces to provide docents with a new storyline and to offer a different perspective for roaming visitors, e.g. opening a room with hairdresser equipment, adding children’s clothing, etc.
Exhibit spaces on their own can tell a story either with animals, objects, or both. In museums, as pointed out by the Zoo, there will not always be a staff person providing extra information or having a one-on-one conversation with visitors. How do we have the visitors find the stories (especially when a cute red panda moves about its enclosure)? Exhibit designers have the challenge of telling the story with this in mind. The architecture and placement of objects can tell stories or help with the main ideas.
For example, the Hillwood Estate Museum contained Marjorie Merriweather Post’s portraits and framed photographs in more than half of the rooms, some of them covering a whole wall. I later learned that she had the intention to turn her estate into a museum. Just as people curate Instagram photos from their everyday life, I felt Post did a similar thing with her portraits. I had the sense that she wanted others to know that she had a full life: friends with important people, and from an important family. She was able to convey that through paintings and photos. I did not read that from a tombstone label or heard it from the audioguide narrator but was able to add to the narrative based on my observations. I do not know if general museum audiences are hyperaware of exhibit spaces but I think they create stories from their surroundings – whether they know it or not.
The Director of Education at the Smithsonian Museum of American Indian (NMAI) asked a question to the effect of “Who here thinks culture is easy to display?” Conveying complex histories and representing cultures accurately are some of the challenges Smithsonian museums are facing. While talking with the staff at NMAI, I noticed parallels in the use of interactives at the National African American Museum of History and Culture (NAAMHC) and the Smithsonian American Indian Museum (SAIM) when approaching difficult stories. Both had engaging “choose your own path/adventure” type of digital media that integrated real world consequences.
The NAAMHC incorporated an interactive based off The Negro Motorist Green Book. The Green Book was a real guide that helped African Americans find restaurants, lodging, and service stations while navigating “segregated realities” in America from 1936-1966. The interactive itself was a touchscreen but placed in the front of a car with a projected screen on the windshield. After a brief introduction, visitors then ‘travelled’ across America as an African American who needed to pack their bags and make decisions of which places to stop with the guide of the Green Book. After each decision, the consequences of their choices were made clear through a role playing scenario projected on the windshield screen.
The NMAI designed an interactive in their Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations exhibit to help visitors learn different perspectives and the choices people had to make during the Indian Removal Act. Visitors watch an introduction that provides context about this particular time in American history. Then, you can choose a person, representative of groups of people, with a real decision they would have made in the past. As the museum staff pointed out, you will not win. They all have harsh realities and unpleasant outcomes. These varied perspectives help tell the stories of many groups dealing with one issue and helps provide numerous lens. Visitors learn the consequences of their choices with actual historical events which I think becomes more powerful instead of just providing imaginary scenarios. I think this interactive makes you think, “what would I do?” and “would have I survived?”
Both of these interactives remind the visitor that choices have consequences which can make a small or huge impact on the present and future. I think giving visitors choices forces them to pause and connect to the bigger idea. I thought that both interactives do a nice job of putting the visitor into ‘the shoes’ of another and create empathy for particular people. At the same time, it helps visitors grapple with difficult and hard realities of the past.