“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.


Twelve Days of Popcorn (Day 6): Play

Bubble solution.  A snail tape dispenser.  A bouquet made of pasta flowers.  A solar powered toy car.  A squishable foam donkey.  Wizard’s Potion.  Pop up books.  Poetry by A.A. Milne.  A sign that says “Please do not throw confetti in the museum.”

My desk has a high fun quotient.  So does my job.  Going to toy stores is research and tossing around a fuzzy yellow rubber ball is teacher professional development.  This does not mean I don’t have stacks of books on state curriculum standards, reference materials, and more files than you can shake a stick at.  But fortunately, the people I work with understand that innovation, education, and play go together like ice cream, brownies, and chocolate sauce.

So it is with great pleasure that I get to point you towards a fabulous article by the House Masters of Pforzheimer House at Harvard, who are encouraging a broader understanding and use of play in all stages of education: “Want to get your kids into college? Let them play.”


The real “readiness” skills that make for an academically successful kindergartener or college student have as much to do with emotional intelligence as they do with academic preparation. Kindergartners need to know not just sight words and lower case letters, but how to search for meaning. The same is true of 18-year-olds.The real “readiness” skills that make for an academically successful kindergartener or college student have as much to do with emotional intelligence as they do with academic preparation. Kindergartners need to know not just sight words and lower case letters, but how to search for meaning. The same is true of 18-year-olds.


Copyright-Friendly Image Use

You need images for your blog.  For your power point presentation.  For your activity sheet.  The clip art you have available on your office software is boring, or limited, or completely insufficient for your topic.

You decide to take a quick hop on the nearest available internet image search, find the perfect image and then use those helpful right-click-copy or save-as options.  You drop your new-found ideal picture into your document.  Maybe there’s a watermark or a signature that you decide to crop out.  Maybe you leave it.  Maybe you include a photo credit.  Maybe you don’t.

We’ve all done it.  Unless we’re remarkably scrupulous, we didn’t ask permission.

Which means that at one point or another, we’ve all been guilty of (mostly innocent) copyright infringement.

Big businesses have found all sorts of solutions to wrangling infringement on the internet–their latest solution appears to be allowing it so long as they get advertising revenue out of it: YouTube Ads Turn Videos into Revenue.

But most artists and a great many businesses don’t have the resources to be tracking down misuse of their works all over the wild and wacky internet, so a lot of infringement goes unnoted.  If you, like I, have started wondering how to go about borrowing images in a more responsible manner, here are some resources for you which help explain copyright law and also point you in the direction of people who *want* to share their work with you.

Copyright Basics — A decent plain-language overview of copyright law from Stanford University

Museumwise’s compilation sheet of copyright resources, online and print (links to a pdf)

Creative Commons home page — These are the folks that like to share their work, where you can license a particular image, etc. for sharing under certain restrictions in easily understandable language, such as ‘I’m happy to share this with you if you will use it in a non-commercial way without altering it, or with alterations so long as you also allow your version to be shared with others under this same kind of license.’  Find artists or license your own work to share here.

Daguerrotype of Nathaniel Hawthorne, from the Library of Congress collection. Click for link.

Copyright Friendly and Copyleft Images and Sound — This is a resource list for places to find free stock photos, images which are in the public domain (including a number of excellent resources from the federal government, which is not allowed to hold copyright), and even some sounds/music, which is usually even more complicated from a copyright standpoint than words and images.

Recommendation: Playing to Learn

I’m always interested in what other people have to say about the connections between learning and play, and I really enjoyed this presentation (designed as if on a game board) which talks about ways to keep learning fun without being entirely lame lost in the maze of a good idea poorly executed.

Do make time to watch the section on Bloom’s Taxonomy as explained by the Pirates of the Caribbean. I laughed a lot.

Level 4: Analysis. "Me, I'm dishonest. And a dishonest man you can always trust to be dishonest. It's the honest ones you've got to watch out for."

“Children love to learn, but at some point they lose that and become adults that don’t like formal learning. Let’s explore why “play” has gotten such a bad rap and figure out how to get it back in education.” ~Maria Andersen, Playing to Learn? on Prezi

A Welcome Un-Surprise

In January, the UK’s Telegraph reported “Museums ‘should provide more hands-on experiences for children'” with the subtitle “Children are getting bored with ‘interactive’ push-button displays in museums and would rather dress up and touch exhibits, a campaign group claims.”

…And I thought ‘campaign group? Try 9/10 of the museum professionals I have worked with and/or know!’

In fact, what surprised me most about this article was not its findings, but the fact that it provoked so few expressions of vindication in the worlds of museum education where I tread.  Some of us have been saying this kind of thing for a long time.

Movie still from "Night at the Museum"

Okay...so it *might* be possible for exhibits to be too interactive. But I doubt it. Movie still, Night at the Museum, 2006.

While it’s nice to see that some of the best memory-generating (not to mention that buzzword of my museum studies’ days, ‘meaning-making’) experiences possible in museums are finally (occasionally?) getting the lauds and general public attention they deserve, I can’t help but think that it’s not exactly news.  I’ll grant you I’m in a privileged position where true interactivity is concerned: hands-on inquiry is at the heart of The Discovery Museums, where I spent the last three years, and it’s most certainly an organizing principle of PEM’s Art and Nature Center where I am now.  (After all, how many art museums do you know that let you leave your own recycled cardboard and oddity ‘trashimals’ in the same gallery space as ‘real’ professional artists’ works?)

More exciting to me than the Telegraph’s non-news is the advent of The Participatory Museum, written by Nina Simon of Museum 2.0.  She’s graciously making the content of her book entirely available for free online, as well as for paid pdf download if you like the pretty formatting.  Almost all chapters are up as of this post, with the rest due to be available by the end of March.  One of the things that I find most intriguing about the way she approaches participation is that she’s inspired by some of the very cool tech-y projects and possibilities, but is not confined by them.  Things don’t have to involve the internet–or a computer at all–to be fascinating, relevant, memorable participatory experiences.  And she goes many steps beyond the ‘touch a whalebone’ approach mentioned in the Telegraph article, into ways to promote conversation.  I’ve only just started making my way through the chapters she’s posted, but I’m looking forward to several hours’ worth of pondering!

On a related online-resource-note, I’ve collected a number of new and awesome useful links which I’ll be adding to the resources page through the rest of this week, so check back for those soon!

Passing along a Job Opportunity

I’m not usually in a position to help pass such things along, but a friend asked me to share this one, and it does sound pretty darn cool.  Plus, the folks I met from ECHO at last year’s NEMA conference were awesome.

ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center, located at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain on Burlington’s waterfront, seeks a creative, upbeat individual to serve as its Public Education Coordinator. The Public Education Coordinator has primary responsibility for designing and
coordinating the delivery of exceptional daily experiences and programs to ECHO’s family and public audiences.
The position includes performing regularly for large public audiences, training and supervising volunteer, intern and staff educational interpreters, and managing systems and materials  related to public programming. The public education coordinator is required to work regular weekend and holiday shifts as part of a 40-hour/week schedule.
The ideal candidate will have strong stage presence, experience using technology to enhance educational programming, and experience supervising educational interpreters. The successful candidate must have a bachelor’s degree in ecology, biology, science education or a related field, minimum 3 years experience designing and implementing educational programs and strong public speaking and communication skills.
To apply, e-mail a cover letter and resume to: jobs@echovermont.org with Public Education Coordinator in the subject field. You also can apply via “snail” mail at ECHO – Public Education Coordinator Job Search, One College St., Burlington, VT 05401. For a detailed job description, visit our website at http://www.echovermont.org/visitors/jobs.html. The deadline for applications is March 8, 2010.

New Year, New Job, New Adventures!

I have exciting news to share with you all as a kickstart to 2010!  As of tomorrow, January 11th, I will be the new Program Specialist at the Peabody Essex Museum’s Art and Nature Center!

At the Art and Nature Center

PEM's Art and Nature Center, photo by }{enry (click for link)

I’m really looking forward to rolling up my sleeves and delving into a new set of skills and stories to learn, and bringing my hands-on experience to developing new programming and helping to design exhibit interactives and discovery boxes for the gallery space itself.

The Art and Nature Center at PEM does a huge amount of interdisciplinary education, working with contemporary artists to create year-long exhibitions which incorporate art, science, history, and culture.  The current exhibition (up until late May)  is called Trash Menagerie, and focuses on works of art depicting animals and other life on Earth using recycled materials.  (Check out the online exhibit interactive here, which provides a world-wide look at what artists, communities, and governments are doing with green-inspired art!)

And, in celebration of my new gig, I bring you a mini concert by the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra:

2009 Wrap-Up

Welcome back, folks!

Before we launch into all the cool and exciting new stuff planned for 2010, I wanted to take a chance to wrap up some leftover business from 2009.   I posted my own contributions to the New England Museum Association conference in November, and promised the slideshows from my co-presenters, Mike Adams of Boston’s Museum of Science, and Nancy Jones of Longfellow National Historic Site.  Mike’s fabulous talk focused on the ways in which the MOS adds to existing programs, reworks older programs, and invites in local experts from numerous other institutions to host Archaeology Week every October.  Nancy’s marvelous contribution brought art, literature, and history to the discussion, with examples of hands-on crafts, teen involvement projects, music, and a dash of poetry.

Talk to Me: Websites that Capture Museum Experiences

I’m working on the problem of experiential museums and the way they represent themselves on the internet.  Though obviously some museums have an impressive web presence on Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, etc. I’m specifically interested in museums’ own home websites, where one hopefully gets the clearest message about who these museums are and what it is like being there.

There are a number of art museums that have very impressive websites (Boston’s MFA is top of my list largely due to familiarity, but there are certainly others), however I feel that in general art museums have it easiest, being in general object-centric.  (Certainly there are exceptions, but looking at the ‘object of the week’ feature and overall focus of exciting new projects like Open Museum show that I’m not alone in thinking that the ‘stuff’ is what’s central in a lot of these places.)  Historic sites have it almost as easy, if they’re largely interested in interpreting material culture.

What about other kinds of museums?  How do living history museums, inquiry-learning discovery/science centers, children’s museums, and others that put the experience (theatrical, hands-on, or otherwise) represent themselves in a format which is so removed from their physical presence?  Is there a way to capture what it’s like to be there?  To simulate it, or at least adequately record and share it?  To spread the message and the mission so that when people get to the physical space, they understand why it is the way it is?

Off the top of my head, the Exploratorium seems to have a few of those ‘best practices’ to share, and surely there are others.

Bat-eared Foxes, photo by Floridapfe

Talk to me about museums you think do this well (or if it’s even possible) –I’m all ears.