I Spy….

Today at the International Spy Museum we met with Anna Slafer, Director of Exhibitions and Programs. After roaming around the museum for an hour we met to discuss the approaches the museum was looking to take with their display and programs at their new museum site in the coming year. Anna said that her goal for the museum is to provide “delight” and “insight.” Simply put:

Delight + Insight = Powerful Experience

As I look back on my experience in this seminar and reflect on the different museums we visited, I ask myself, what made a museum more interesting/immersive/fascinating than others? There were some museums that I really enjoyed and there were others that were interesting (but I may not go back as I didn’t entirely enjoy the experience).


Museums that I found very enjoyable contained a blending of delight and insight. Now when we say delight, we don’t necessary mean you are comfortable, but it gives you a feeling that enhances the experience of the information you are learning.  Many of the museums we visited did just that.

The museum I work at is looking at reworking our interpretation and we have been discussing how we are to go about creating a fun and unique experience. I think that answer lies with the equation “delight + insight = power experience.” It is an equation that I have seen successfully work again and again over the last two weeks. I am excited to bring back the tools I have learned in the last two weeks back to my museum! 🙂


Talking About The Tough Stuff: Part 2

The Holocaust is not an easy subject to discuss. So many different emotions can be felt learning its history: sorrow, anger, grief, and confusion to name a few. So when confronted with conveying such difficult history, how are museums to handle it? What I have learned in the course of this seminar is that each museum is a little different in its approach. Some museums are more gentle in trying to explain it [specific history] while others give you all the information in an immersive experience. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum takes on an interesting stance, as discussed in our round table discussion with professionals of the museum, “we don’t put people into others’ shoes.”

Their reasoning is simple- they don’t want to compare pain of one or another. We want to learn from history and think ahead.

We took a tour of the temporary exhibition, Some Were Neighbors, which looks at how average everyday people contributed to the Holocaust. This exhibit demonstrated the museum’s stance of not putting you into any one person/group’s shoes. The exhibit looked beyond one side versus another, but the victim, perpetrator, and the bystander. You are given stories of how people’s decisions either hurt or aided the Jewish people. Although you are not viewing any one story, but many, you still feel a great sense of loss and sadness.


This got me thinking though. By placing someone in “their shoes” are we being less reverent of the experience the person was witness to? Is immersion or certain sensory stimulants irreverent? I guess at this moment I don’t have a solid yes or no answer, but a simple “it depends” (which I know, is not the best answer). In some situations I can see it working, but in others, like the Holocaust museum, I can’t. I think each museum has to weigh how they want visitors to feel and how they want the history to be told. I think distance of time from the history being discussed is also important. There are still survivors of the Holocaust living, but we cannot say the same about those who lived at Mount Vernon.


So when we talk about the tough stuff at our museums, my best take away is this: consider the passage of time and what you want your audience to learn- then build from there.


Making Items Last

Today at the National Museum of Natural History we met with Hans Sues, Senior Scientist and Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology. He gave us a wonderful tour through two exhibition galleries. He noted though the complexity of preserving items on display and meeting certain codes within an institution. For example, Hans noted that preservation of fish has changed over the last few decades. Early fermentation methods were carcinogenic and could lead to other nasty issue. The museum also has a rule that no more than 5 gallons of alcohol can be in an exhibition. A tiny fish has the ability to take us about 1 gallon according to Hans, which means you will need to find other ways to display your organic creatures. He showed us dioramas, models, and my personal favorite, a large salt water aquarium as display options. What is better than seeing the actual fish swimming about!

During his discussion about finding preservation/fermentation agents, Hans noted that they collaborated with 3M in finding such a suitable serum, which they did! It is also far healthier to the user handling the specimens too.

I had never considered 3M in the world of museums (beside the PostIt notes I always use). If I was in that frame of mind when I learned of 3M’s help, I am sure many others were too. How many other companies are we overlooking in our field as possible innovators and problem solvers for such issues we face daily in our museums? I would probably never had considered 3M when trying to figure out a new preservation liquid, yet they created one!

We all have our favorite store or grocery store we prefer to shop at, and I feel that is similar with museums too, but I feel that today was a good example of the innovative possibilities that can happen when museums collaborate with outside sources and businesses.

Talking About The Tough Stuff

How does one discuss a topic that history seemingly forgot to mention in our text books? Today on our visit to Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, we learned a great deal about the slaves that George and Martha had. I had never considered Washington having slaves, nor do I ever remember learning about Washington having slaves in history class growing up. Yet, it makes sense given the world he lived in.


So when you have guests come to your museum and they are surprised by its content- how do you handle it? How do you even begin to discuss it? As one interpreter told us so eloquently- with “truth, dignity, and grace.”

Mount Vernon’s exhibit, “Lives Bound Together,” attempts to create the scene of what it may have been like for slaves living on the ground of Mount Vernon under Washington. The exhibition is wonderful and rather in-depth. The interpreters on the ground really try to give you a sense of the opinions and views of the people that would have worked and lived during the time of Washington (and some with him).

Thinking back to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, I ponder the slavery exhibition. Again, not an easy topic to discuss for many. Yet, the exhibition was so powerful and so immersive, but done with such grace. I felt the history being discussed and walked away with an immense gain of knowledge.


I realize history is not always pleasant to discuss- there have been incredibly tragic moments. Yet, as a museum, we have a responsibility to discuss history, no matter how unpleasant or how it may make one person appear (even if history has taught us a different view). We must use these lessons of history as teachable moment to hopefully avoid future occurrences. Wednesday we are going to the Holocaust museum and I am very interested to see how this story is portrayed through their exhibitions.

Thinking Beyond Walls: A Thought on Accessibility

Today at the National American History Museum we had a discussion about accessibility. I am currently in “Accessibility and Museums” course so this topic was incredibly interesting. I think the key to today’s presentation is that accessibility is more that just physical barriers. While the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) looks at architectural barriers in public spaces, it is important to remember that disabilities can be more than just physical.

Disabilities encompass a variety of areas such as low vision/blindness, hearing loss/deafness, developmental disabilities, and those who suffer from dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. While removing physical barriers (such as cords and large rope barriers) is important, are our museums offering enough to those who suffer from developmental disabilities? I would say no.

While we are moving in the direction of considering all visitors to our museums, we must continue to create programming and spaces for those who have been largely ignored in the past. For example, I have heard of a number of new programs directed toward children with autism. During these programs, lights are dimmed, excessive stimulations are removed, sounds lowered, and space is made available for just families and other quiet areas. These types of programs are wonderful and offer many unique opportunities for both the visitors involved in the program and the museum itself.

I felt that I gained some new tools on how to create more accessible programming for my museum that I cannot wait to use upon my return home!


At National Art Gallery- note the open spaces that allow for easy movement

How does that make you feel?


Today at the National Zoo we couldn’t help ourselves but be drawn to all the cute animals, both big and small. Yet, as you look around, each habitat and enclosure is different. The walls that have what we would consider exhibition style labels all tell their own unique story. While a zoo is not a museum, we both strive for creating a feeling or a state of mind for our visitors. While the feeling may be directed by the topic of the museum or exhibition, the state of mind you place your visitors in is important.

For example, at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the exhibition revolving around the history of the slave trade is purposefully made dark and narrow. You feel uncomfortable and confined. Your emotions are meant to sync with the history you are learning about.

As Tim Wendel explained to us earlier this week, place your reader [in this case audience] in a scene. That scene is the state of mind we want our visitors to either understand upon their entrance or gain following their visit. We strive to tell stories about the items in our museum, whether they are object-based or story-based. By creating a desirable state of mind your audience can gain an even greater understanding and experience of your exhibition and your museum.

Why Should You Care? Creating Meaningful Museum Programming


Today our trip took us to the National Air and Space Museum. One cannot help but to look up in awe at the range of items that hang from the ceiling of the museum. It seems as if the items are stuck in time as they hang over your head. Our meeting with Ann Caspari, an Early Childhood Education Specialist, made an interesting point to us. Why should you care? The museum is filled with items that would set anyone’s mind a-buzz, but what about the smaller less notable items. Why should you still care?

I find myself as a museum educator grappling with this question often. Here I am in my present job telling you all about the 1800s life in Illinois. From their clothes, to their farming techniques, even what a one room school house was like, yet, why am I telling you this? A museum’s purpose is to tell stories about the topic it is on, be it the space program, the culture of a specific group, how glass is made and artistically styled- anything. The point is is that we, the museum and its educators (with the help of other departments), must create programming that make people interested in learning more about our topics.

Our programming must consider many factors though such as age groups, interests, language barriers,  accessibility needs, etc. We want to provide enough information without overload or it being under explained. While there is no simple answer into how one makes an engaging museum program I think a great place to start is where Ann left us- “Why should you care?” If you can focus your program to answer that question, the rest will fall into place.