Looking through a New Lens: Interdisciplinary Programming (Even on a Small Budget)

This past week was the annual New England Museum Association conference, in Nashua, NH.  There were a number of fascinating sessions, ranging from ways to use content-embedded mapping projects, to the use of art in non-traditional spaces to further the ‘story’ of history or science, to ‘outside the box’ thinking about greening museums.  (Expect more thinking on some of those topics from me in the future!)

So, other than taking copious notes, wishing the hotel were just a few degrees warmer, and poking around the exhibit hall, what was I up to?

Meg presenting at NEMA2009

What am I bouncing about this time?

It was my great pleasure to chair a session titled “Looking through a New Lens: Interdisciplinary Programming (Even on a Small Budget)” with colleagues and friends from the Museum of Science, Boston, and Longfellow National Historic Site.  I’ve included my section of the presentation here, which provides basic background and coping strategies for ‘why do interdisciplinary programming?’ and ‘how to go about it’ depending on whether or not your idea bag is full.  Nancy Jones, supervisory ranger at Longfellow NHS then presented on some of the many ways she and her rangers make history, poetry, and art tangible, relevant, and exciting, and Mike Adams, outreach coordinator for MOS-Boston discussed the way their Archaeology week encompasses standard programs, special exhibits, and special events every October.

Why do interdisciplinary programming? (Which, for the purposes of this discussion and this blog in general is defined as taking one topic or idea which is usually considered part of one discipline, and looking at it through the lens of another less familiar one.)  First of all, why not?  There are a lot of good reasons, including giving your staff and visitors variety, attracting new audiences, and just plain having fun with it.  Not to mention the fact that in the age of standardized testing and rigid curriculum requirements, museums and other places of informal learning are some of the only remaining ways to explore, promote critical thinking, and generally enliven curiosity.

There are a lot of excuses for not doing interdisciplinary programming–expertise, time, and money are the big ones.  But depending on where you’re starting to brainstorm your ideas, there are a number of solutions available to you.

Have you already decided on a topic, an object, a person or idea?  Think about the basic questions: When is it from?  How was it made?  By whom?  Why?  What purpose does it serve?  How does it connect to today’s life and people?

If you don’t have an idea, there are three organizing questions to start your brainstorming:

  • What do you wonder?
  • What do you love?
  • What do you have?

Wonder: Maybe you have a popular program but you’d like to take it further, or in a new direction.  Maybe you’ve read an interesting article in a newspaper or magazine and would like to explore it beyond what you’ve read.

Love: This is the simple one, and my favorite.  Are you a frustrated actor?  Write programs that give you an excuse to dress up.  Feel like you’re living in the wrong time period?  Always wanted to be an astronaut?  Think about the things you (and your staff) love: your hobbies, interests, pursuits outside the world of work.  Bring them in and share them with your audience: the more enthusiastic you are, the more convincing an educator you can be.

Have: The bare bottom line.  Still don’t have an idea?  Look at what you’ve got.  Are there exhibits that you could liven up by changing signage or context?  Can you think about them from a different point of view, only tangentially related to the main story you usually tell?  Or are you starting with the infamous box of cool junk under your desk?  (Mine has multiplied in to several boxes, of spools, coffee filters, neat plastic tubes of different shapes and sizes, altoid boxes, magnets, and heaven only knows what else.)  What in that inspires you to make something, explore something, combine with something?

Still stuck?  Call a neighbor or a friend with the right expertise for what you’re hoping to do.  Generally we non-profit types are more than happy to help.  Also, don’t forget to poll your staff and make friends with your local librarian.  You never know what they might be able to find for you!

Meg, Mike, and Nancy at NEMA2009

Many thanks to Mike Adams of the Museum of Science and Nancy Jones of Longfellow National Historic Site!

If you’re interested in any of the handouts from the presentation or in Mike’s or Nancy’s presentations, please let me know.  Many of the resources I referenced in my presentation are already listed here on Brain Popcorn in the Resources section, and I add to it frequently.

Find some of my other program presentations on SlideShare, here.

One thought on “Looking through a New Lens: Interdisciplinary Programming (Even on a Small Budget)

  1. Pingback: 2009 Wrap-Up « Brain Popcorn

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