A Day at the Zoo and Beyond

 

I was already excited to go to the Smithsonian National Zoo. I love animals, and value them as “object based” learning “tools.” At the Children’s Museum & Theatre I educate with Nigel,Bizzy-Bob, Eloise and Dill–four yellow belied slider turtles. These turtles create so many opportunities for inspiration andndiscovery for visitors of all ages. I was excited to see this level of inspiration on a exponentially larger scale. I was not disappointed. During the lovely dialog we had with Devra Wexler and Cheryl Braunstein, I was challenged to think of the strengths and weaknesses of using narrative in a zoo, or while educating with live animals in general.

Visitors are undoubtably shaped by anthropomorphism. We empathize and assign human traits and feelings to animals. We watch these creatures eat, sleep, care for their young, see their family members and because of these, and other observations, quickly connect with these animals far more naturally than inanimate objects in traditional museums. We see ourselves as these animals, and create stories that make sense of what they are doing based on our own understanding. This causes us to care for the animals, which is part of the goal, but also can cause people to question the animals’ captivity. We would not want to be enclosed, why would these creatures?

So the challenge is, how can we (educators) harness people’s natural tendency to put these animals into a narrative as a chance to go deeper and share more goals of conservation. How can visitors see animals as an ambassador for their species? This challenge is complicated by the fact that the animals themselves are darn cute! Why would visitors pay attention to anything else? From discussions with Danielle and Devra, I think the key lies somewhere near design and learning from evaluation of that exhibit design. By studying where people go and for how long we can determine spaces to put in more information to deepen the narrative and deepen the visitor connection. When designing the “more” piece, why not utilize people’s tendency to empathize with animals and create an interactive where the visitor is the animal in the zoo, and showcase the careful care each zoo creature gets? This interactive is not created yet, but I fully expect this brainchild of Danielle to be created at the zoo shortly!

I was slightly expecting the magic to end at mid-day, like Cinderella’s carriage (in this case meaningful eye contact with an orangutan) would turn into the pumpkins, in the sprawling gardens of yet another well preserved wealthy person’s house. I can find meaning and awe in the opulence of the once rich and famous, but often tire of the narrative, especially if that wealth is at the expense of others. However, I was delightfully surprised to learn more about Ms. Marjorie Post and particularly came to respect her upon learning she brought classes of high school students to her house to educate them about the arts. The second delightful surprise was learning from the experience of Angie and her education team. This group of women that seemed more like family than co-workers  taught me about the benefits of deepening relationships with certain visitor types, the importance of marketing, and how museums need to reinterpret their collection at various times.

 

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.

“My task is…to make you see.”

A pair of black boots are resting by the door. Decaf earl grey tea sits steeping next to the window, beyond which the sounds of car horns, lively voices and clanking dishes from nearby restaurants shoot through the air.

I sit, trying to remember just how the day transpired and how it ended seeing Donald Trump.

Just that morning I sat on the sixth flour of the Johns Hopkins Advanced Academic Programs building munching on sweet cheese danish and sipping warm coffee–fuel for the day’s physical and mental rigger. The rigger began suddenly as a spritely and energetic man, who introduced himself as Tim Wendel, rolled up the sleeves of his button-down shirt and sent the class reeling back to a familiar but dormant sensation of classroom student. Like candy pop rocks Wendel rattled off a precise set of questions just quick enough to keep everyone on their toes: “What is narrative?” “Summary or scene?” “Tell me what the A, B, C, and/or D parts of this picture are.” The coffee was forgotten as I listened and filled page after page in the small notebook in front of me.

By lunch time the whole world was stories. To me the man on the subway listening to music with AirJordan sneakers was sleeping because he was up to late watching March madness with his calico cat, the crumpled newspaper on the ground accidentally fell from a purse as sunglasses were retrieved (only the front page had been read), and the construction workers who built the subway always ate chocolate donuts. Fictional stories imagined on the way to the Smithsonian Museum of American Art blurred with historical fiction and non-fiction as new characters such as Hekena Rubinstein, Toni Morrison, and Roger Shimomura (pictures below) were introduced.

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Instructors challenged me and my classmates and to create a story between two portraits. Since two minds are better than one, I teamed up with a fellow classmate armed with a wild imagination who delighted in the process. Together we created a story of immigration and the American Dream as Henry Cabot Lodge  had a fateful meeting with  Roger Shimomura. This, and other silly, poignant, and imaginative stories reverberated through the large chamber and across the expanse of decorative brown and teal tiled floor. When the stories were told and the walls were quiet once again, the day came to a close. Except it didn’t.

Walking home by way of the Whitehouse, myself and a friend were startled to find the crosswalk blocked off and one of the main thoroughfares near the National Mall empty of cars. About fifteen people were milling around the fence on the west side of the Whitehouse. Runners decked out in spandex, several families with young kids bee-popping around with what looks like new DC sweatshirts, and then some people, like me, who were just curious to see what is going one. Then the motorcycles appeared. They had three wheels and lights. Everyone was watching, cameras ready, pitched voices speculating. Everyone watched as the presidential caravan rolled out of the Whitehouse and right by the sidewalk. Where was Trump headed? That is a story for another time.

 

Words, words, words

 

“Words, words, words” Hamlet spits in act 11, scene II. Hamlet, the king of soliloquies, would be made speechless by the words at National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).  Museums often fall into the trap of using too many words. Yet the “Slavery and Freedom” exhibit manages to effectively avoid this pitfall and provides a didactic, traditionally styled exhibition with an unapologetic sweeping history and enlightened personal stories that enlightened not confused. I was swept along by a powerful and active narrative that both informed and called me to action.

Countless history and economic lessons have tried to tell the story of the triangle trade route, which exchanged goods and human life between Africa, the Americans, and Europe. Yet, none had ever caused me to inhale sharply as I did when I read the last sentence of the transatlantic slave trade label: “Their tears were embedded in every coin that changed hands, each spoonful of sugar stirred into a cup of tea, each puff of a pipe, and every bite of rice.” These words give voice to a horrific systemic reality.

Furthermore, words (or the lack of them) reveal that slavery was not a passive act, as some textbooks and histories might lead one to believe. On the contrary, specific and numerous actions drove America into a paradox of a free land and unfree people. One choice can be seen in the crossed out words of Thomas Jefferson’s constitution draft, which the founding father’s thought suggested this paradox too obviously.

James Baldwin’s words remind us that these moments in history are not isolated events in the past. Baldwin’s words ring out across the empty air high above the gallery reminding us that “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it with us, unconsciously controlled by it…history is literally present in all we do.” History informs our actions while our actions, at this very moment, are shaping history.

It would be an injustice to not give praise the museum’s collection, which is incredible and had me shedding tears, pausing, dancing, and grinning ear to ear at various turns. Yet, at the end of the day, it is the curated words that are written in my thoughts. Katie Kendrick, Exhibitionist Curator at NMAAHC, shared the museum’s desire to curate an experience. Whether people glean that experience from objects, words, media, interactives, fine art, or likely a combination of it all, most will have an altered view of America. For me, the experience leaves me contemplating the many millions of voices that share in saying in the words of Langston Hughes “I, too, am America”. 

Chef Jacket Worn by Leah Chase

Leah Chase’s chef jacket peeked my interest because food has a fascinating way of shaping culture and history (some historians go so far as saying coffee helped win the Civil War). Moreover, this is a jacket worn by a female black chef whom I had not heard of. Who was this woman that obviously overcame barriers to achieve this title and jacket? I didn’t have to go far to learn how this collection piece earned its place among the 37,000 elite objects.

On one level this jacket tells the story of a strong woman, one of 14 children born in Madisonville, Louisiana. A woman who grew up amidst the oppression and segregation in the south (About the Chef, para. 2). Her resume, which includes managing amateur boxers and marking a race horse board, speaks of a feisty woman who does not necessarily conform to social norms (About the Chef, para. 2). Once Leah Chase marries musician Edgar Dooky Chase, Jr., she put her founts of energy into the family’s restaurant Dooky Chase’s in New Orleans.

In addition to the story of Leah Chase, this jacket speaks of cultural preservation. In taking over the restaurant, Leah Chase created what one might go so far as call a museum. She preserves creole food and culture through the dishes that she prepares, inspired by her Louisiana childhood (About the Chef, para. 3). She also began collecting African American art, which still adorns the restaurant walls today. In a time before many African American museums were created, this restaurant celebrated and preserved African American culture.

Lastly, Dooky Chase’s restaurant becomes one of the primary meeting places for the Civil Rights movement, becoming a main character in the journey to equal rights. Notably, this restaurant was so loved by the public, police could not shut it down (About the Chef, para. 4). Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders came here to meet and plan next steps in resistance. It is no coincidence they chose to meet in a place that could nourish body and soul.

At 93 years old, Leah Chase still works at Dooky’s Chase’s. I would love to sit down with Leah Chase and hear more about her childhood, memories of the Civil Rights movement and what she thinks of the world today. Quite possibly the stories this jacket represents are not finished yet. Objects like this illustrate the intersectionality between individuals, culture and history. Just one object communicates multiple intersecting stories, which is why I look forward to learning more about this and other objects of convergence.

 

Works Cited

About the Chef. (2013). Dooky Chase’s Restaurant. Retrieved from http://www.dookychaserestaurant.com/chef

Chef Jacket Worn by Leah Chase. (2012). 2014.218.1,  NMAAHC (1400 Constitution Ave NW), National Mall Location, Culture/Fourth Floor, 4 050. Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC.