Selfies, Speed Dating, and Museum Ethics

program goalsRelevant. Engaging. Fun. Viral. Entertaining. Educational. Hip. Innovative. Creative.

A daunting set of words to have as goals for any museum program or exhibition. Museums all over are looking for ways to tap into the trends of the day to help reach those goals, and sometimes they succeed and sometimes they slip up; so what is it that makes for a successful event or engagement opportunity, and what are the commonalities among things that are likely to fall flat at best, and land you in the mud at worst?

The scene is complicated by entities like the highly popular Museum Hack, a team of outsiders that creates (with the permission of the host organization) museum experiences that ‘disrupt’ the usual expectations of a museum tour. They have raised a few eyebrows among museum professionals, but have also received a warm welcome for bringing a fresh set of experiential ideas to widespread attention. That said, what seems to be ‘okay’ on a Museum Hack experience can seem problematic when attempted by museums themselves.

Let’s look at a couple of recent examples:

“Science Meets Speed Dating” at the American Museum of Natural History, from the Wall Street Journal

This sounds, from this article, like a really successful event. They took an easily recognizable style of event, the concept of which is clear even if you’ve never been to a speed-dating evening, and gave it a twist to suit their context. I know that in my past museum jobs evaluations showed that ‘meeting the expert’ events, be they artists, scientists, authors, whatever, were always a big draw, and this capitalizes on that pull to create a really entertaining evening. I can imagine contexts in which speed dating would not work so well as a framework–Speed Debate with the Founding Fathers? Maybe not. Still, there was content to back up the concept here, and it shows.

“Kimono Wednesday” at the MFA

There’s been a lot of  ink spent on the protests surrounding this event already, and I’m including the links below of some of the interesting reads. I’m more interested in looking at the program structure than debating the larger issues.  The original intent of the kimono-selfie-prompt was not malicious, but it certainly seems to have suffered from an insufficiency of forethought. It was also (quite properly, in my opinion) criticized for lack of context. The discussion around culture-as-costume seems to only be getting louder (again, quite properly imho); in Canada a music festival just banned the wearing of First-Nations-inspired headgear, for instance. In that environment, promoting an opportunity for self-promotion through kimono-selfies seems oblivious, not to mention a tad dated/derivative. As one insightful person I spoke with put it, “Once they’re selling selfie-sticks in Walgreen’s, it’s over.”

That said, the fact that the museum immediately changed gears, added context, and is assembling a symposium to discuss issues of cultural sensitivity and appropriation is admirable. Listening to the people in your space is important. That they continue to voice their upset is a mark more of the level of frustration and voicelessness felt by certain segments of the population than it is a reflection on the museum’s actions. The MFA is in the same boat as the presidential candidates at this week’s Netroots Nation event; they happen to have provided a stage for people who haven’t had one. That the MFA is planning on leaving open that space and continuing the discussion is great.

“MFA recasts kimono days after complaints of stereotyping” at the Boston Globe

“Confused thinking behind the protests at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts” on Hyperallergic

“MFA’s kimono controversy should spark deeper conversation” at the Boston Globe

Flag Creation and the ‘Hate vs. Heritage’ Argument

Participatory spaces in museums, facilitated and non, are a growing staple of museum engagement.  In an activity inspired by Bastille day, one museum educator ran up against some unexpected uncomfortableness when some visitors chose to re-create versions of the Confederate flag to hang on the activity wall–and had to face questions of editing, engagement, and ethics in deciding whether or not to take the flags down:

“When do we edit participation?” at Museum Questions

Thinking, again, about this as a program design, there’s not a lot to criticize here. Could some of the issue been averted by having an educator in the space? Possibly, but possibly not. Could more or different signage have helped? Again, possibly, or possibly not. It’s a problematic balance between access and resources; sometimes the staff just doesn’t exist to keep spaces like this staffed. I would argue that audience participation is always enriched by the chance to interact with a museum educator. (This is where I am not putting my thoughts on how all museum staff, regardless of department or background, should spend a certain amount of time per month on the exhibit floor, because that’s a whole different post waiting to happen.)

Should museums have a stated policy their staff can refer to about the things they will or will not accept as ‘leave-behinds’ for display? That would probably help. After all, most museums will remove random scribbles and profanity from their comment books; if the National Park Service has refused to let their concessionaires sell merchandise with the Confederate flag on it, that’s enough back-up for me.

There is a place for conversations about heritage, symbolism, and the visual language of oppression, but it’s not the unfacilitated kids’ art zone. Everyone deserves to feel comfortable and welcome in that kind of space; let the difficult conversations happen where there are no safety scissors around.

So tell me what you think: why are selfies as prompted by Museum Hack ‘okay’ (if they are)? What other kinds of gallery-disruption do you favor or dislike? What would you do if someone left a Confederate flag (or other controversial image) in your art zone? When is a kinetic experience learning and when is it a ploy?

Varying your Information Diet

Photo by Nevit Dilmen.  Creative Commons license.

Photo by Nevit Dilmen. Creative Commons license.

Remember that post I made a few weeks ago about Creativity in the Workplace?  Authors Rainey Tisdale and Linda Norris ran a related networking and creativity event at the USS Constitution Museum last week in cooperation with the NEMA-YEP group.

With the blood-and-attitude-shifting assistance of music and a dance circle, Tisdale and Norris led participants in a speed-networking creativity discussion, challenging each of us to consider and then share what we were passionate about, what we wanted more of from our jobs/careers, what we were good at, and how we could implement and incorporate into our daily routines elements of their steps to creative thought processes.

River tributaries, courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (public domain)

River tributaries, courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (public domain)

One of the steps they list to help prepare your mental ground for creativity is to vary your information diet.  With the easy availability of tailored information streams now (everything from RSS feeds to Twitter streams to Pandora channels), it’s easy to wrap yourself in a comfortable bubble of information you’ve essentially pre-selected.  One solution, of course, is to vary the tributaries that are feeding into your stream.  Here are a few quick and easy ways to do that:

Have a Tumblr? Freshen up your Dashboard!

A lot of museums and libraries have gotten into publishing fun stuff from their archives and collections, visitor images and videos, and even staff-created music videos on tumblr.  I recommend just poking around the museum tags until you find some that appeal.  Who doesn’t want neat and beautiful art and animals and whatever on their screen every day?

NPR has thoughtfully collected a list of their own and other public media tumblr blogs, featuring news, science, arts, politics, history, food, all of the above, and more.

The fun and passionate folks over at We Need Diverse Books are doing a summer reading series, where they recommend books by diverse authors and/or with diverse characters that share elements with better known works, ie ‘readers of Harry Potter will probably like Nnedi Okarafor’s Akata Witch.’  They’ve just started, so you have a whole summer of fun kids’ and YA lit recommendations ahead of you.

Looking for a few more ‘grown up’ reads? Try the folks at Go Book Yourself, where real live readers recommend 4 books you might like that have similar characteristics to a book you’ve read and liked.  (They also have a Twitter feed.)

Interesting Stuff in 140 Characters

I have such a love/hate relationship with Twitter.  People post all these cool links and then I end up with roughly a bajillion tabs waiting to be read.

Yes, thank you, New Scientist, exactly what I mean.  (You might want to follow that link, by the way, it leads to some really interesting book reviews!)

Aside from New Scientist, here are a few other feeds I follow that promote the kind of brain-popping curiosity experience I love:

  • Think Progress – lots of interesting and occasionally fairly terrifying news about global environmental, political, and other newsworthy news
  • Creative Nonfiction – for those of us who like our true stories to sound like stories
  • Education Week – largely, but not exclusively, an aggregator of news from all over US school systems
  • Crossed Genres – speculative fiction publishers with an emphasis on diverse story telling, in all the ways that can be interpreted
  • American Museum of Natural History – fun science facts, all the time!
  • Two Nerdy History Girls – a pair of authors who are also amateur historians.  Highlights the hilarious, wacky, and cool bits of history
  • Future of Museums – Some very museum-focused information, but also wide ranging idea pulling from other fields

There are, of course, many more, and if you have suggestions for me, feel free to add them in the comments!

Meanwhile, don’t let yourself get overwhelmed by information overload, either, and remember to give yourself time to reflect and ponder and daydream and make those brain-popcorn connections between information and ideas…or in Norris and Tisdale’s term: Incubate.


The PEM contingent at the #creativemuseums DIY photobooth.  Yes, I'm the one with the sword.

The PEM contingent at the #creativemuseums DIY photobooth. Yes, I’m the one with the sword. Naturally. Don’t you think better with a lightsaber in hand?


Rushin’ towards the Olympics

Pretty sure I had gloves just like this when I was 7, only there was a tiny knit teddy bear in a pocket instead of a Russian flag...

Pretty sure I had gloves just like this when I was 7, only there was a tiny knit teddy bear in a pocket instead of a Russian flag…

It’s almost time for the Winter Olympics, and time for me to find friends with working TVs so I can play too.  Before the torch reaches the Olympic stadium, however, there’s still time to work in some fun Olympics themed interdisciplinary awesome!

Languages and Cultures

The folks over at The Educators’ Spin on It have compiled some fun pins about Russian language and culture to explore with younger children, and also a list of fun ways to use the three Sochi Olympics mascots (a bear, hare, and leopard) to explore Olympics history. (The mascots even have a Twitter account!)

olympic symbol sochiThe Australian Olympic team has provided a set of interlinked Winter Olympics lessons for several grades and disciplines.  (Despite its dubious educational benefit, my favorite is the coloring sheet featuring a kangaroo jumping out of a matryoshka, for sheer hilarity.)

From the Australian Olympic team, see link above

From the Australian Olympic team, see link above

Science and Engineering

NBC Learn has a host of neat videos on the science and design behind the tools, gear, and execution of various winter sports.  There’s even one called ‘Olympic Movement and Robotic Design’ that I am looking forward to watching when I get a free minute.  (2010’s series of films are still available thanks to the NSF here.)

Don’t miss Olympic STEM resources from Edutopia, or this great set of history, language, and science resources for older students from Teacher Vision either.

Plus, check out past Olympics round ups from right here on Brain Popcorn:
Vancouver 2010: Warming up for the Winter Olympics
Sliding, Rolling, and Gliding (Bobsleds and more!)

Why Science Needs Art, and so do we all


“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
John Muir

Every so often, when I tell people that I write a blog about interdisciplinary education for museums, schools, and the generally curious, the response I get is a generic “That’s cool!” while their faces say quietly “What?”  and “For heaven’s sake, why?”

Why indeed.  At its most flippant level, the answer is ‘because it’s fun.’   However, there are serious reasons to advocate for interdisciplinary learning, and every so often I feel the need to point out just how many people agree with me.

For instance, graphic designer, computer scientist, and author John Maeda (who also happens to be the founder of Second Life) claims that “Innovation is born where art meets science.” In answer to the question “Why does science need artists?” he replies

We seem to forget that innovation doesn’t just come from equations or new kinds of chemicals, it comes from a human place. Innovation in the sciences is always linked in some way, either directly or indirectly, to a human experience. And human experiences happen through engaging with the arts – listening to music, say, or seeing a piece of art.

For this reason, he advocates for turning the tenets of ‘STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education’ into ‘STEAM,’ including the arts to promote innovative thinking and a greater acceptance of ambiguity.  (For more good background on the whats and wherefores of STEM Education, check out this excellent New York Times article, “STEM education has little to do with flowers.” Unsurprisingly, this article also points out the many benefits of looking at the connections between these subjects as opposed to the ‘silo’ approach.)

The Common Core Standards, which are slowly being adopted nation-wide, are also supportive of interdisciplinary education, though the standards are of necessity organized currently under the major umbrellas of English language and literature, and Mathematics.  Consider this benchmark for third grade, located under the ‘comprehension and collaboration’ strand in the English standards:

Determine the main ideas and supporting details of a text read aloud or information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally. [emphasis mine]

Visually–the reading and comprehension of artwork, symbols, photography, and motion pictures.
Quantitatively –the reading of charts, graphs, and numerical results.
Orally — the comprehension of spoken words, theater, lyrics, music, etc.

These are true interdisciplinary skills, necessary in all fields and for life in general.  And beyond the development of life skills, interdisciplinary education and exploration has been shown to promote creativity.

John Muir, environmentalist

The power of imagination makes us infinite.
~John Muir

Miller Mc-Cune reported this spring that studies have shown that experiencing different cultures can make you more creative, as can thinking of yourself as a seven year old.    (As I regularly travel and visit toy stores, this is good news for me all around.)

Check out The Walters Art Museum’s two interdisciplinary classroom units at their teacher resource page, Integrating the Arts, for some examples of how this could be done in connection with a museum or in  your own space.

The Dance of Youth, by Pablo Picasso

“All children are artists.  The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”
~Pablo Picasso

What steps can be taken, once we’re ‘grown up,’ to keep that creativity alive?  (Other than visiting museums and giving ourselves permission to play?)  The Idea Hive has some suggestions: The Subtle Art of Provoking Serendipity , including gathering diversity and making connections.  Interdisciplinary learning in the workplace as well as the school and the museum.  I love it.

‘The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” but “That’s funny.”‘
~Isaac Asimov

Has all this put you in the mood for some fresh ideas?  Open up the multimedia Moodstream created by Getty Images and let your brain start popping.

Cool and Creepy Archaeology in October

The month is almost over, but I can’t let it go completely by without tipping my hat to Massachusetts Archaeology Month.

Since life here at PEM has been very focused on the amazing Emperor’s Private Paradise exhibit, I have to admit I’ve been more tuned to archaeology stories from that corner of the world recently, including this incredibly cool discovery which may make people reevaluate historical trade routes: Could a Rusty Coin Re-Write Chinese-African History?

In celebration of which I give you Mint Your Own Coin from the American Museum of Natural History’s OLogy page, which also features fun interviews with archaeologists, make-your-own archaeological stationery, artifact features, and more.

If you’re looking for other online archaeology interactives, check out the extensive list at Fun Archaeology For Kids.  The list includes lots of different cultures and time periods, with a great many of the interactives created by museums and other reputable sources.

And now for the creepy. (It is, after all, the week before Halloween, and I’m not entirely immune to the Salem atmosphere.)

Royal blood may be hidden inside decorated gourd.  (eeurgh!)  An intricately decorated gourd bears traces of blood which may very well have come from a handkerchief soaked in the blood of the beheaded King Louis XVI of France.

Personally, I prefer my blood 100% Pure Fake, as in the book reviewed by exhibit interactive wizard Paul Orselli.  And if that’s not enough gross and gucky exploration for you, check out Wastewater: Sewage in your face! from the San Diego department of public works, which, among other more educationally rewarding activities, has recipes for making soda and cake that look like sludge.

All creeped out?  Build an Egyptian tomb, uncover a prehistoric burial, or just make a pasta skeleton, courtesy of artist Kathy Barbro, directions here (or click the picture).

Pasta skeleton designed and photographed by Kathy Barbro. Click for link.

Macaroni Commas and Two Left Feet

Didn’t get enough word fun on International Literacy Day?  Then get ready for September 24, which is National Punctuation Day.  I kid you not.

According to the official site for National Punctuation Day, this particularly exacting holiday is the brainchild of comma fiend Jeff Rubin, and is now in its seventh year of celebration.  Last year’s festivities were punctuated (ha!) by a baking contest, and this year they are soliciting punctuation-themed haiku, so go check it out if you’re feeling em dash deprived.  Don’t miss the photo gallery of punctuation mistakes–a sadly bountiful crop of terrible pluralization, but some other entertaining gaffes as well.

But why would you want to do that?  Grammar isn’t fun!

Yes it is.

I will grant you, I don’t know if playing Punctuation Pasta with macaroni commas and quotation marks would have gotten me all excited about punctuation as a student, but looking at it now reminds me of the totally fabulous found-object illustration style of My Dog is as Smelly as Dirty Socks, which is a great way to teach grammar and figures of speech.  And I can totally imagine expanding the idea of punctuation pasta to punctuation pizza (period pepperoni, anyone?) and beyond (hence the baking contest last year, I surmise).

Punctuation is also incredibly useful in the world of solving rebus puzzles–take half the words out and replace them with pictures, and all of a sudden that apostrophe seems a lot more necessary to decoding the sentence.  ReadWriteThink has a rebus poetry writing lesson, but there are dozens more out there, and lots of cool historic examples, too.  The family of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow played with rebuses, and here’s one from Historic New England to test your mental mettle.

Feeling good about your visual verbal skills?  Try the BrainBats over at BrainBashers (Lots and lots of fun brainteasers over there, by the way, including some fun logic puzzles).  Or go for a more traditional grammar game experience with the Comma IQ test from the folks behind Eats, Shoots & Leaves.  You might even copy edit to your heart’s content in both Spanish and English through Maggie’s Earth Adventures, offered through Scholastic’s Teachers site.

Had enough words?  We’re back to impossible objects and scratch holograms in the next post.

Popping with Poetry

If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.

~Emily Dickinson

Ms. Dickinson was clearly a Brain Popcorn-style poet.  (She also reputedly said “The brain is wider than the sky,” a sentiment I quite enjoy.)  And so I am happy to say…

It’s National Poetry Month!  (As good a reason as any to love the fact that it’s April, just as Archaeology Month is  a grand thing to celebrate in October.)

There are a lot of very cool things going on in the world for National Poetry Month, and here are a smattering of particularly interesting and/or interdisciplinary approaches:

One Day Poem Pavilion — a very neat project, brought to deserving attention by Paul Orselli over on Exhibitricks.  This particular intersection of art and science writes a poem with sunlight and cardboard which changes as the day progresses.  Be sure to check out the time lapse video.

You Too Can Haiku — ARTSEDGE does it again!  A nice satisfying lesson plan incorporating writing, visual art, and multicultural discussion.

Michelangelo Complains in Rhyme about the Sistine Chapel — Highly amusing, even if one probably loses something in the translation.  (And it holds particular shine for me, as I’m going to Italy at the end of next week!)  This would be a really fun poem to tie in to a discussion/activity on ekphrasis.  If you’re looking for further ideas, I recommend this lesson plan over at ReadWriteThink.

MYO Magnetic Poetry Activity Plan (downloadable pdf) This is the list of materials and directions for a Make Your Own Magnetic Poetry activity that I’ve done several times at The Discovery Museums, and which will also be one of the April drop-ins at the Art & Nature Center here at PEM.  It’s entertaining, and though pre-cutting words can be time consuming, it’s very rewarding to watch people sift through the words and exclaim over the ones they find.  Small kids through teenagers and adults have fun with this one!

Finally, I would like to applaud this particular random act of poetry in a grocery store.  That kind of news just makes my day.

Setting off Sparks (of Imagination)

I read a truly fabulous article today which  made me dance for joy in my seat.  (And then have flashbacks to my first trip to Disney World and the song Figment sang in the Imagination Pavilion.  Which has now been stuck  in my head for several hours.)  This article, “Fresh Approaches to Sparking Creativity” reports on the findings of two studies into engaging the imagination and giving it more scope, first through exposure to and comparison of multicultural information (photos, video, music), and second through putting oneself in the mindset of a child.

“seeding the imagination is as simple as allowing yourself to think like a 7-year-old” -Tom Jacobs, “Fresh Approaches to Sparking Creativity”

Now, as an avid advocate for the world of interdisciplinary learning, I read the first half of the article with a great amount of pleasure.  In fact, I said “Aha! Vindication!” because my travel-minded mother has always advocated for exposure to other cultures, and consequently so have I.  In fact, the incredibly strong multicultural collections of the Peabody Essex Museum are one of its main attractors to me from a programming standpoint.  There’s just so much source material!  (And by the way, the Sensational India festival is coming up soon, if you’d like to put this imagination-sparking theory to the test!)

However, the second study report went straight to the heart for me.  Childlike thinking?  I’m all over that.  🙂

When working with the Explorers at The Discovery Museums, one of my favorite training exercises was called “When I was a child.”  In this exercise, we gave each Explorer a sheet asking them to write down what they remembered from specific ages (4-6, 7-8, 9-10, 10-12): whom did they play with?  what kinds of games or activities did they like?  what were their favorite things to do?  and then gave them somewhere between 5-10 minutes to jot down their answers before offering them the opportunity to share some of their favorite memories, one age at a time.

Not only was it great fun to participate (why let the trainees have all the fun?), but it was fabulous to watch people’s faces and voices change, to see them grin reminiscently and light up with enthusiasm.  Keying into that energy  helps us to understand what a museum’s visitors are all about at certain ages.  It’s a fabulous way to talk about child development and visitor interaction without ever getting into the psychobabble or technicalities.

Plus it’s good for your brain.

"One little spark--Imagination--Is at the heart of all creation!"

Warming up for the Winter Olympics

Vancouver Olympics 2010

I love the Olympics–talk about an interdisciplinary event!  Theatrics, costumes, sport, science, art, international themes, history…a brain popcorn extravaganza if ever I saw one.

To get you in shape for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic celebrations and competitions, here are links to gear up your brain!

Official Websites of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics

Official Site of the Vancouver Olympics, including a fun interdisciplinary nod to native legends and local ecology with the three kid-friendly mascots, Quatchi, Miga, and Sumi.  Have to admit that Miga is my favorite — how can you not love a ‘sea bear?’  Part orca, part endangered Kermode ‘spirit bear’, and relentlessly adorable.

US Olympic Team Official Site

NBC Coverage of the Olympic Games

Olympic History

70 Years of Olympic History, from the Washington Post’s coverage of the ’98 Nagano Games

Science of Sport

Winter Olympics Sport and Science from Montana State University

Science of Hockey, part of the Sport Science feature on the Exploratorium website (gotta love those guys!)

Ice is Nice

ice photography

Images above: This collage shows four of Dr. Wasilewski's art compositions. Credit: Dr. Peter Wasilewski

Olympic Ice is Different in a Frozen Light from NASA.  Very cool photography in this one.

##Current News!## Scientists Keep Water Liquid Far Below Zero Degrees from NPR, reported Feb. 5

Clever snow conservation going on in Vancouver these weeks running up to the games… Spinning Straw into Snow from CNET

Do Try this at Home*

For those who find it too cold to climb trees this season, try some House Gymnastics.   Or at least enjoy the pictures of people hanging precariously in their stairways.

*maybe.  Some of these activities are a little dubious on the safety-meter.  Clamber over furniture, etc. at your own risk!

Coming up next…

Having fun with bobsled/bobsleigh and other things with runners — links and activities!

Plum Blossoms, Bamboo, and Pine Sprigs

Welcome in Lunar New Year with the spirit of friendship (as represented by the flower arrangement above) and with an arrangement of my own suggestions for cool resources and activities.

Lunar New Year

Lunar New Year Parade, Chinatown, New York City 2009, photo by ho_hokus

History and Culture

A brief but interesting collection of information on the New Year as celebrated in China, from the University of Victoria

A nice resizeable map of China, with or without more detailed information, from National Geographic

Asia-Art.Net, a collection of really beautiful examples from several cultures, organized by medium or by culture.


Why is it Lunar New Year?  Observing the Moon, from Science NetLinks

Arts and Crafts

Disney’s family activities offer up some fun and easy decorations for the holiday: a festive ribbon dragon, a beautiful lacy banner, and a good-luck goldfish.

The Smithsonian strikes again!  (I love these guys as much as I love National Geographic!) The Sackler and Freer Museums are home to the Smithsonian’s Asian collections, and they have both Chinese centric and Across Asia teacher resources as part of their larger set of Online Guides.

Theater and Music

Two fabulous resources from the Kennedy Center’s Artsedge:

Puppets on the Move: China and the Silk Road and

The Sounds of China Pod Page, with music to listen to and connected information and activities.


Also from the Kennedy Center, Chinese Calligraphy and Ink Painting

And finally, from Read-Write-Think, which is run by the National Council of Teachers of English, a very cool Fairy Tale Autobiographies lesson plan, which uses Chinese tales but could be adapted for pretty much any culture.

Not enough?  Then come celebrate with the Peabody Essex Museum, on Saturday February 27! (Chances are very good you’ll find me making paper lanterns in East India Marine Hall…)