This Week’s Museum Reads: Empathy & Engagement

Museum Reads header imageI spent all weekend marinating in poetry at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, which was incredible and thought-provoking as always. As an interdisciplinary enthusiast, I was enthralled with the ways I saw people talking about poetry and science, poetry and art, poetry and environmentalism, poetry and current events, poetry and civil activism.  Coming back to my museum-persona, I was glad to see some of those same kinds of discussions are happening in this field as well, at AAM last week and continuing online and abroad.

Here are a few good reads from the last few days:

“Museums are like food-are they part of your diet?” AAM day 3

Another brain-stretching, idea-popping day, with a lot of really packed conference rooms!  I managed to pick several extremely popular sessions today, and fortunately was not one of the folks sitting on the floor.  Nice to see so much determined interest in topics ranging from multi user multimedia interactives to experimental educational programming! Like yesterday, I’m picking my top 3-5 thoughts from each session, but definitely expect to see more from me on some of these topics soon:

Session 1: Learning Together: Developing Multi User Interactives

  • Multi user interactives are more than scaled-up single user kiosks: looking at other kinds of interactives like low-tech tabletops and games can be more useful for developing a digital multi user experience
  • Evaluation from the Field Museum suggests people who work together on an interactive smile 50% of the time, and visitors on their own smile only 10% of the time.
  • Next step in multi-user interactives probably includes motion sensing using elements like the Kinect, which might also help solve design problems like orienting text.

Session 2: Significant Objects

  • Writers recruited to write fiction about yardsale finds, which were then sold on ebay and had a 2700% increase in financial value – what kinds of lessons about storytelling and the perceived value of objects does this hold for museums?  How can we create different entry points for people who might be craving the kinds of stories museums could tell but aren’t telling, or aren’t telling effectively?
  •  Participatory design vs. design for participation — how do you balance it so that content creators enjoy the process and it’s open to a wide range of people, but still end up with a final product that has an appeal to people who weren’t part of its creation?
  • how much can museums play with the truth?  How does this tie in with the conversation from earlier in the conference about real, fake, reproductions, and replicas?

Session 3: Magnificent Masters of Museum Mysteries, Narrative Games in Museum Contexts

  • This panel was full of people I’d really like to spend more time talking to–sadly I had a conflict and couldn’t attend their continued discussion in the hotel bar afterwards, but I’ll be watching their next projects with interest.
  • I’d heard about the Ghosts of a Chance game at the Smithsonian before, but it’s a pretty intimidating example, so hearing about their second attempt that didn’t go so well and their plans for a third was heartening, as was pairing this extreme example with two simpler examples from the Getty and the Cleveland Museum of Art.
  • Getting to play a game during a session on games was a nice touch.


Session 4: Continuing the Conversation, Experimental Projects in Museums

  • Lots of interesting projects going on with inviting community members, particularly creative professionals, into the museum to offer their own spin on programming.  Requires clear guidelines from the museum and a flexible hands-off policy to allow for individuality and fresh ideas.
  • Interesting initiative from Living Arts Center in Mobile where they run a two month intro or ‘pulse’ mini-exhibit to collect community thoughts on the topics of the upcoming featured exhibit- a glorified (and formalized) type of prototyping mixed with marketing that’s really curious.
  • Community involvement in exhibition planning seems to mean much shorter time spans than when working solely with museum professionals–is that an audience based constraint (short attention spans) or a museum one (resource and space commitments)?

Session 5: “Your Brain on Art” sponsored by Reach Advisors

  • There was a fancier more academic title, but the scientists from Johns Hopkins suggested this title instead and it fit well.  It was a great conversation where each side wanted to find out more about what the others were doing–could have easily run for another hour!
  • Fun to hear people outside the field debating the things that museum pros care so much about: is it all about education?  what do museums have that is  unique to that kind of experience?  what about reflection?  is wonder a jolt of quick there-and-gone energy to the brain, or an opportunity for a deeper connection?  what makes for a useful measurement of success at reaching your audience?
  • Is it possible for parents who love museums to pass that love on to their children?  Some studies suggest that culture changes too fast and peers have too much influence, but yet parental modelling is still one of the best ways to convey values to children.  Museums are like food–if you go to museums the way you have family dinner around the kitchen table, make it a regular part of life, have conversations about it, share thoughts and favorites and encourage your kids to do the same, then  yes,  parents can definitely pass the culture of  museum love along.

IMG_20130521_163255.441   Evening enjoyment: The Owl Bar

  • Incredibly cool and beautiful old bar from the days of Prohibition, with fun stories regarding the blinking owl signal lights over the bar (blinking means the cops aren’t around and it’s safe to order from the speak easy!) and quite tasty food.
  • Worth the 2 mile trek up from the convention center and a fun adventure to a different section of the city.  The worst part about a really interesting conference is that there’s too little time for sightseeing.

“To Help People Dream,” AAM Day 2

I have a feeling that this is the sort of conference that gets exponentially more busy each day, so today I’m going to stick to bullet points: my top 3-5 reactions, quotes, ideas, or experiences from each session.  (You can expect me to go back to some of these ideas in later posts instead.)

Session 1: Stories Alive: The Power of Theater in Conservation Education

  • I respect people who start professional conference sessions with puppets.  Seriously, way to grab attention when half the people in the room haven’t got their caffeine yet because the conference center Starbucks was overwhelmed.
  • This was an interesting balance to yesterday’s session, because it included examples of different kinds of (mostly larger) theater programs, and also discussion of evaluation and figuring out lingering impact and message effectiveness.

Session 2: General Session – Education, Stories, Museums: Transforming Lives, Keynote Speaker Dr. Freeman Hrabowski of UMBC


  • Instead of ‘what did you learn today,’ ask ‘did you ask a good question today?’  Encouraging curiosity leads to great thinkers.
  • Experience in the arts, even if you are not excellent, makes you realize and appreciate what it takes to be excellent.
  • The fundamental purpose of museum and of education is to help people dream.

Session 3: 3D Printing from the Smithsonian

  • I feel like museums need to go talk to people at Pixar and Weta and some of the other fields where they’ve been doing more with 3D scans and imagery, like those laser scanned reproductions of various actors for their character busts and replicas.  Because there are cool ideas out there we could be using.
  • I like the idea of reproduced models of archaeological digs and virtual dinosaur bones for study.
  • The Smithsonian has a real advantage in testing out these new techniques given that they have 19 museums and 9 research centers to play around with a range of ideas.


Session 4: Maximizing the Nation’s Common Wealth: Museums and Parks in Partnership

  • Sitting in the same room with the Secretary of the Smithsonian and the Deputy Director of the National Park Service is a little like attending a museum equivalent of a rock concert.
  • The strategic plans (with an emphasis on education for each) are supposed to be available in the session notes on the AAM website.  They sound/look like an interesting read.
  • For all that they have significant and impressive visitation figures, both institutions suffer from the same issues regarding diversity and relevance that almost all traditional museums are currently facing and attempting to change.  It will be interesting to see what works on such a large scale.

Session 5a: Museum Marketplace: Exhibit Labels competition

  • Definitely a lot of labels that privilege descriptive writing over the purely didactic.  Makes for an interesting read that has either a conversational or reflective cadence.




Session 5b: Museum Marketplace: Education showcase

  • Always nice to see what other folks in my field are up to!  Reading blogs is interesting, conversations are even better.
  • Fun and interesting thoughts about Maker spaces and their uses with school programs.
  • Cool cooperation happening between Smithsonian museums for interdisciplinary approaches to exhibits, especially art & science.  Always nice to see that happening.

Expo Showcase 6: Augmenting Dinosaurs – Augmented Reality Installations 

  • I appreciated the opportunity to hear from museum staff, computer/media designers, and the paleontologist whose research led to the animations used in the augmented reality interactives.  The range of perspectives made it more useful and interesting than a vendor-only session would have been.
  • T-Rex shook its prey like a crocodile does and Allosaurus did the dip and rip move that small raptors like kestrels do.  And they can tell that based on skeletons and the way the muscles would have had to attach to them.  Amazing.
  • Augmented reality seems like a reasonable thing to explore for enlivening the natural history elements in the Art & Nature Center–but I wonder, what would make it compelling for the Art half of that equation?

After Hours Fun 7: Wonders of the Undersea World at the Baltimore National Aquarium

  • Great staff, very personable and willing to answer questions on practically any topic.  Beautiful building,  not unlike Boston’s NEAq (and the central tank was apparently designed by the same person)
  • They have dolphins–7 of them. I am very jealous.  
  • I loved the rainforest exhibit, including the opportunity for visitors to hold a stick with live crickets over the archer fish tank and watch them spit water at the crickets to knock them into eating range.  That was highly entertaining, if unfortunate for the crickets.
  • I will never understand aquarium catering being okay with serving seafood, no matter how tasty the crab dip.

Bonny Baltimore, Day 1 from the AAM conference

Today was my first day ever at an AAM conference, and it started off brilliantly.  It’s going to be a busy several days, according to the amount of orange highlighter decorating my conference booklet, and if all the sessions are even half as interesting as the first few, it’ll be time well spent.

The afternoon’s first session I attended was a showcase of museum theater programs hosted by the folks at IMTAL, with four different museums (2 science, 2 history) offering up snippets of their presentations.  All were family and student friendly, but wildly different in presentation style and a really interesting assortment to hold up against each other.  Most included audience participation, all included humor and an emphasis on finding a connection, emotional or experiential.

The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago presented “Taste Buddies,” with a lead character in a candy-striped vest who employed a lot of puns and a *lot* of energy, including audience volunteers who gamely ate unidentified jelly beans (you need to know me to understand just how brave that seemed to me, but it was definitely a Bertie Bott’s moment).  Fusion Science Theater worked up a bunch of excitement over the molecular structure of rubber, of all things, using a pair of apparently identical mystery bouncing balls in a pro-wrestling style show down to introduce scientific method and a lot of the related vocabulary.


The Missouri History Center presented “Dressing from the Inside Out” with a demonstration of changing women’s undergarments over several decades, and made a point of appealing to the audience by relating the garments involved to everything from Pride and Prejudice and the probable dress-damping tendencies of Caroline Bingley to the structure of sports bras–the presenter was clearly very in tune with what would appeal to her current audience.

And my very favorite was “Love on the Range,” a storytelling performance by an actor from the Smithsonian Museum of American History, that incorporated music, dramatic pauses, and a lot of great colorful language and description.  I like the Smithsonian’s theater program for a lot of reasons, and this was no exception.


The other session I went to this afternoon concerned the use of reproductions, replicas, and non-accessioned objects in museum situations. Titled “Is it Real? Who Cares?” it featured some of the best interactive discussion in a large-audience panel-format session I’ve ever seen, with lively debate happening about the spectrum of real to fake objects and whether or not those experiences worked.  There was a lot of muddy ground in the middle, of course, but some very fun examples of curious uses of reproductions, etc, from the Franklin Institute’s extremely popular walk-through heart to disagreements over reenactors to a very wacky sounding Australian version of Stonehenge.  If you are curious in turn, you can check out the panelists’ planning blog.