Planes and People

Photo by Horace Poolaw (1904-84) at the Museum of the American Indian

According to the Smithsonian Newsdesk, The National Air and Space Museum receives 7.5 million visitors a year. The Museum of the American Indian sees 1.1 million. Considering my work place at the Children’s Museum & Theatre hosts about 110,000 visitors a year, these numbers seem hard to fathom. What I do know is those visitors all come with different backgrounds, experiences and expectations for their museum visits. As museum experts, you might now be thinking of John Falk’s Visitor Identities or other taxonomies that sift through and organize visitors. Whether you have designed exhibits, education programs, fundraisers or marketing tools, recognizing visitor differences is invaluable to creating spaces people want to come to.

Ann Caspari, Early Childhood Education Specialist, at the National Air and Space Museum demonstrated the challenges that designing for multiple ages and Visitor Identities can represent. Designing an exhibit for the professional hobbyists will not be the same for designing for explorers or families. The key then is to give each group of visitors spaces and activities that suit their intended use of the museum. For children ages 2-8, that might mean spaces with open ended interactives, few didactics and those that are there should be based in inquiry, and hight appropriate places to sit and play. While for professional hobbyists it could mean not only viewing their objects on display, but hosting special talks or seminars for hobbyists to meet and share their passion. Large museums like NASM have the challenge of breaking out of siloed departments to create exhibits that embody both curated objects and curated family and early childhood experiences. One huge breakthrough was the development of the GoFlight App, which allows the visitor to totally individualize his or her journey through the museum.

The Museum of the American Indian not only has the challenge of designing for multiple audiences, they also have the challenge of determining who is doing that designing. Stories are the theme of the trip, and it is imperative to the American Indian Museum that the Native voice is present when sharing the stories told through the exhibits. In addition to sharing about upcoming exhibits, Dan Davis Manager of Media Group, communicated the museums change from a community created exhibit design to a specific group of cultural consultants. This more specialized exhibit design group of both Native people and non-native people are able to accurately create exhibits that appeal to the majority non-Native visitors while also preserving the Native voice.

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