I was pleasantly surprised by the exhibits at the International Spy Museum. My one major critique was that they were hard to navigate in a direct fashion (e.g. I went through the duct work and skipped a quarter of the exhibit). Wayfinding was also made more difficult by the large amount of people visiting the museum. Yet, Anna Slafer and Jackie Eyl seemed well aware of these difficulties.
I was impress with all of the thoughtful planning and prototyping that Anna and the exhibits team has done in preparation of the Spy Museum’s new building. Thinking about how current events and technologies affect interpretation and using espionage as a lens for STEM, history, social commentary on gender & ethnicity, hands on learning and critical thinking skills makes this museum one to watch.
Their desire to create exhibit spaces that both delight and insight reminded me of the interpretation style at Hillwood. Hillwood worked to create “guided serendipity” remarkably similar to the spy museum’s “discovery environments.” In both cases the museum works to scaffold exhibits to give visitors multiple entry points and then use design, hands on objects, narration, or other interpretive methods to draw visitor’s attention to a new discovery. This is my definition of relevancy, and I am thrilled to see museums working to take visitor prior experiences into account when planning exhibits to create discovery based on something relevant to the visitor.
Lastly, this post would not be complete without noting that I spent about three hours touring the main exhibit of the Holocaust Museum. This exhibit, with its simple yet incredibly thoughtful layout was extremely evocative and informative. Going through phases of dark and light signaled to the visitor when it was time for hard content and when it was time for an emotional rest. I also appreciated the straight forward exhibit panels that allowed me quickly to know what the theme of the area and all necessary details. I sensed that the vocabulary on the panels was advanced (high school age and above, which is the target audience) so I was glad to see parents and teachers explaining to “tweens” when they had questions. I think it would be good to have more museum staff near by to answer questions as well. There were few objects for an exhibit that size, but what objects there were, were extremely powerful. To me the most powerful was the photo tower from the shtetl and the collection of shoes. This museum does a tremendous job broaching a very difficult subject.
Without a doubt it is difficult to interpret difficult subjects like the Holocaust during the 1940s. Today we were given a brief tour of the special exhibit “Some where neighbors exhibit” at the Holocaust museum. Sonya, our tour guide, discussed how the exhibit was put together based on a geographic theme rather than chronological and how the museum used different photograph “reveal” techniques to communicate a certain certain messages through pictures. These and other techniques were an interesting look at how the museum approaches its special exhibits. I thought the objects and the interpretation were interesting and provoking. At several sections, I thought exhibit design could have made the intended content more clear. For example several important photographs used on tour were posted far about eye level on walls. Also, I felt that the exhibit lacked flow, and I could see myself as a visitor not necessary understanding the best order to view the exhibit.
Discussing the exhibit with classmates and other employees of the Holocaust Museum presented opinions on interesting topics such as how to involve empathy, roleplaying and relevance. In the Holocaust Museum, as in other museums that we have visited, museum staff must walk a fine line of interpreting topics to make issues relevant without being disrespectful or hostile. I think that by approaching special exhibit topics with an eye to nuance, makes an exhibit more relevant to visitors. Everyone has experiences making good and bad choices, and thus will innately begin to relate to the individuals identified in the exhibit. Overall, the power of the subject was conveyed, and I look forward to seeing how the next special exhibit designed through crowd sourcing comes together.
Once again, one of the threads I am pulling out of our day coincides with the needs for museums and the individuals who work in cultural institutions to be civically engaged. At the beginning of our course Judy defined Civic Vision for museums as institutions that are a “key civic player with responsibilities used for growth and social justice” (Empathetic Museum Maturity Model). At the National Museum of Natural History Hans Sues passionately discussed the importance of working to protect our natural environment and especially the world’s ocean resources, like coral reefs. He offered the NMNH up as a resource of truth in the midst of a sea of competing and politicized view points revolving around climate change (which, echoes the sentiments in one of my blog posts from last week). By doing so, he establishes the museum as a community and national civic resource.
As Sues continued the tour he excitedly introduced us to new preservation techniques, exhibit designs and what scientists have deduced about the evolution of people. All the while school children darted to and fro, exploring, interacting and taking in the multi-sensory exhibits. Although it made our experience as grad students a tad more difficult, it was satisfying to see a younger generation finding science and the world around us relatable, and hopefully inspirational. Hopefully, the museum becomes a civic steward 1,000 times over as generations of children realize that they too can be ocean stewards.
Sues pointed out that the currant political climate makes knowing accurate information and preservation difficult. This same sentiment was exactly the same conundrum that inspired Dr. Michael Walsh to spend over nine years of his life in Cyprus preserving medieval art and the cultural heritage in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Walsh’s humble and grassroots efforts to preserve culture in the face of a disunited and hostile political environment was inspiring. His message that scholars and academics, who proceed with thoughtful and selfless designs, can be leaders in society is a model for us all. In the midst of a rapidly changing world, it is important to take small steps in the right direction (like restoring one painting) and see if those steps can build into something the world will one day recognize as invaluable.
Many people tell the same story differently. Or is it a different story altogether? We all know that America became a country and we all know that George Washington was the first president. But does the story change by knowing more about George Washington? Listening to Jonathan Wood, play George Washington’s enslaved valet Christopher Shields, I would assert that it does.
George Washington was the man that put his own needs aside for a country and gave so much of himself to sustain the confederacy. He fought for freedom. Yet, the same man was “of two minds” as Jonathan eloquently reminded us. He did not fight for freedom for all people.
I found Jonathan’s first person narration and his acting acumen very powerful. I was further impressed with the unified interpretation of site. For a museum that has two separate education departments, 80 docents, and a million visitors they had their story clearly articulated. Lives Bound Together revealed the results of archaeology digs, decades of research and narratives of local decedents of enslaved people to confirm how slavery was intricately woven into every step of Washington’s life.
Yes, Washington was a man of great intelligence, strong will and selfless in many ways. The exhibit does not vilify Washington. Instead it fleshes out his life and in particular the 300 plus enslaved people that helped to facilitate it on a daily basis and the 100,000’s of others who contributed to his daily luxuries like sugar and tobacco. The exhibit presents a part of the story that is necessary to fully understanding Washington. Jonathan’s interpretation reiterated this duality and the house tour also managed to mention the enslaved people who would be lighting the fires, preparing meals and mending clothes.
For those with limited knowledge of Washington I can see how these truths that form the story of Mount Vernon might seem shocking. To this sentiment, Jonathan responded saying that telling the story of Mount Vernon is about having a conversation and telling the truth with dignity and grace. I believe that it is through conversations in great institutions like this one that people will begin to see more fully where America came from and help to shape where it is going.
The Smithsonian Institution symbolizes America’s ernest desire for education and knowledge. Historically museums had a tradition of exclusiveness, and it was not until figures like Charles Wilson Peale began opening museums up to the working class that that they became places for everyone. Today so many people were darting around the Mall discovering pieces from one of the greatest collections in thew world. With all of these Smithsonian resources, I found myself wishing museums could fit more seamlessly into our public education system and moreover hoping for these museums to realize their potential as beacons of truth, or at least true debate in the world of increasing distrust and false news.
I was thrilled to learn about the accessibility initiatives throughout the Smithsonian Institution, and was struck at how this is definitely an uphill battle. There are essentially two people (with less sway than they need) ensuring the space and content is accessible to as many people as possible. Spark! Labs at the Museum of American History was a great example of what can be done when departments team together to create an accessible interactive space. As our public education classrooms are largely inclusive spaces, I hope that the Smithsonian can continue to work and learn to make the museum a place where all classrooms feel comfortable.
We had the absolute pleasure of touring the new galleries in the National Gallery of Art’s west building with Curator and Head of Modern Art, Harry Cooper. His skill in curating in such a way as to pose questions, infer meaning and offer comparison was wonderful. Especially naming the gallery “Looking forward, Looking backwards” with the accompanying photos (below) provided context and a beginning for a narrative with precious little words, but a lot of thoughtful design. My hope is that the National Gallery creates opportunities for all people to find this art a welcoming experience. The building itself, which boasts more marble than I can fathom and beautiful but unfamiliar geometric designs, will need to make sure that it is giving people an invitation to come and discover. The fourth and final part of its mission, is to “foster understanding” and I hope it continues to do this, because art is becoming increasingly less valued in public education and it is important for this museum say, why these works of art are important, and why the works of art in the future will be important too. The narrative needs to extend beyond the gallery to inspire their visitors.
Lastly, I just want to say this has been an absolutely incredible week!