Hello! I spent about half of yesterday (technically today, I’m writing this on Thursday) at the National Museum of American History, which is one of my very favorite museums.
My background with NMAH is a long one — my first visit (that I remember) was when I was a young elementary aged Girl Scout, and I paid at least two subsequent visits in the years before the renovation. When the museum reopened in 2009, I visited twice and then reached The Life-Changing Event, also known as my internship there.
And so, in honor of my internship, I’m going to post five things I’ve found in NMAH.
Julia Child’s kitchen is in a new home since 2009. It currently sits in an exhibit about food. At the center of the exhibit is the most interesting thing I’ve ever seen in a non-living history museum: a kitchen table. This table was long and had dials that explained the food pyramids (look out for the dog food pyramid, too). There were chairs around the table, and they were being used. What a great way to promote fellowship!
I always love to talk with the volunteers that run the visitor’s services desks and the touch carts (my internship had me working at both in addition to the theater programs). The woman I spoke with today was so welcoming! We talked for a while about our favorite exhibits (Within These Walls and Written in Bone at the Natural History Museum next door) and about the many changes to the museum. She even walked over to me later and we talked more about an object on display. I have noticed that the welcome centers don’t get much attention from visitors all the time, which is really a missed opportunity when the volunteers there are so caring.
About a year ago, I visited NMAH with a good friend, and we watched as a curator dismantled Julia Child’s kitchen to move it. She saw our curious looks and came out to tell us about the exhibit and how it was being moved. I mentioned my internship, and her immediate response was “Welcome home.” There is a fellowship in that museum that I have seen in other museums as well. Once you were there, you know the museum, it’s home to you and others. Every time I walk in the museum’s doors, I hear myself saying “Welcome home.”
Did you know that the Smithsonian makes apps? I sure didn’t! What a pleasant surprise to find the American Stories app (for its exhibit American Stories) in the museum! It is bilingual and is a tool geared towards visitors with low sight. I downloaded it onto my iPod just because I wanted to hear/see what others were saying about the exhibit. The basic concept is that you either listen to or record your own experiences with the exhibit objects, and the public votes on favorites. What a great way to bring an exhibit to everyone. I really can’t express how awesome and accessible apps like this one make museum exhibits.
This panel was great to explain the app as well (I’m sorry for the poor iPod photo quality). I just wish that the placement was more visible in the exhibit and that the Smithsonian promoted these apps a bit more. Even though I only visit Smithsonian exhibits once every six months or so, I really wish I could experience parts of the exhibits from home or on the Metro.
3. Wireless Internet?
Speaking of the app, its only downside was that it had to be internet connected, which meant I couldn’t listen more on the Metro (nuts!). What I did find, however, was that they had wireless in American Story! Did I see anyone misusing the wireless in the room? Nope. I was the only one using it, I think. I have been thinking about how great it would be if museums did make wireless accessible. I would love for museums to open up to this idea more because museums are great places to hang out in, but they don’t feel like they welcome you to hang out. As someone who either speeds through exhibits (when I’m with people) or takes them slowly (alone), I want to feel comfortable in a museum, even if it’s just to sit down for a minute to rest. I wouldn’t be surprised if the community, in hearing about internet capabilities in the museum, would start to visit. Then they would “hang out” and actually start looking at those things on the walls and then start asking questions and interacting. That would be such a great experiment opportunity. Hmmm.
4. Where Have All the People Gone?
I am a huge fan of one-on-one interactions inside exhibits. People ask about tours at “my” museum all the time (we don’t give them, the exhibits are not built in a way that is suited for tours), and I do wonder if it’s not about the content, but the delivery of the content. When visitors interact with other people, they are forming emotional connections to the people/objects. Many people pointed out the MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat, military food) at the touch cart I helped run at NMAH next to the war exhibit. “We have a ton of those from the hurricane!” “My Mom/Dad brought those back for me.” “I ate a lot of those.” It opened up the gateway to interaction at the exhibit.
At my current museum, I wear a big button with what looks like a blue smiley face or mustache on it. It’s actually a Superb Bird of Paradise. Many visitors ask me what it is, and I tell them. It opens the gateway for conversation when visitors don’t know who to ask about the exhibits. I’ve seen visitors look at me, then turn around and ask the security guards for help. The guards then send them over to me.
It is possible for a museum to look and feel lonely. NMAH felt lonely. There weren’t people in the halls with touch carts or talking to visitors. I didn’t see any staff members my entire visit, except for in the store. I am an innately shy person, but that doesn’t stop my need for emotional connection to the exhibits. My friend asked me many questions about the Star Spangled Banner exhibit, and I was overcome with the feeling that something was missing from our experience. While my friend’s questions were great questions, there was not much emotional interest behind them. She became a citizen fairly recently. She pointed out a naturalization ceremony photo to another friend and I at the end of the exhibit. That was where she felt an emotional connection, which highlighted the absence of one for the rest of us. I went back to look at the flag and spent some time thinking about how my friends would walk out of the exhibit already on a new topic of conversation, while I would walk out feeling that the Star Spangled Banner was part of my history, and that I wanted it to be there forever. It has become something that is not just a symbol, but my flag. How do you share these strong feelings about the exhibit? A living history program and flag folding activity were how we did that in the past. They led to my strong attachment to the flag.
I know that NMAH has gone through changes, and it makes sense to not have programs out when the museum has only a small number of visitors. I can’t help but wonder, though, if the emotional connection is still the same when there are no floor staff.
5. Tell Me/Show Me
NMAH has a new initiative that I love — they encourage visitors to respond to large questions and small questions, even asking what objects we, the visitors, would like to see inside their exhibits! What a great way to give back and take ownership! My only issue was that there was no paper available for me to respond, but there is a website, so maybe my suggestion of Depression Glass will actually get there. The only downside was that there were just as many off-topic answers as real ones. I did notice a number of teens hanging around this talk back area, and while they might have had some silly answers, their answers were very interesting as well.
We have comment books at the exits of our exhibits at work. I love to read through them, and they offer us important clues into who our visitors are and why they are there. One visitor commented that she was finally proud of her heritage (Muslim) and not ashamed because of our exhibit. I snapped a photo of it and refuse to delete it because I know that our exhibit changed someone’s life for the better. Even if we have a different faith heritage (I’m a practicing Christian), I can still appreciate the impact a museum exhibit has had on my life.
And that, my dear friends, is a topic I am leaving for another day.
What have you found in your museum or museums you have visited recently? Got a favorite museum app, iOS or Android? Make sure you share it in the comments!