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Monthly Archives: February 2013

My Museum Story

It dawned on me the other day that I haven’t told my own museum story.

I grew up in museums, parks, and nature centers. I have memories of the routine I had when we visited the National Museum of Natural History here in DC: dinosaurs, prehistoric ocean, discovery room (had to find the bats in there), insect zoo, mummies. This was all before I turned four. I remember showing my grandpa the prehistoric ocean exhibit when I was about seven, and I know that by then I knew a good part of the museum by heart.

My parents both loved history and natural history. It rubbed off on me pretty quickly. By the time I entered elementary school, I knew most of the parks, nature centers, and museums already. My favorite time period was (and still is) the 18th century.

Museums started becoming an occasional thing when I reached middle school and through high school. I was a counselor and a nature center volunteer. My favorite animals were owls, and I was considering wildlife biology as a college major.

College started off with almost everyone I knew telling me that I needed to major in something useful. Instead I took classes in the Honors Program that were interdisciplinary and amazing. I discovered owl symbolism in Bosch paintings and went to NASA and museums. One field trip in particular changed everything. First we went to the Smithsonian African Art museum. Then we went to the Natural History museum. After I helped us find our way, my professor turned to me and said, “Wow, you know this place really well, don’t you?”

That was my turning point. I knew museums. I loved museums. I realized that maybe there was a job for me in museums.

A semester later, my adviser introduced me to her friend, a museum educator. We talked about her discipline, and I found a map to a place I never knew existed. I was required to volunteer at a nonprofit for a class. I volunteered at a museum. By spring I declared my majors (art history and history) and I applied to intern at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. I didn’t have a specific department, all I knew was that I wanted to help people find history the way I did.

I was accepted. I was going to work in visitor’s services. I’m very shy at times, so I was very worried. My first day I was given the object that changed my career path: an “Ask Me” button. When I wore it, I wasn’t shy. I worked on my skills, but I didn’t need to work hard. I found my niche.

Three years later, I’m a visitor’s services rep in a medium-sized museum. I love my job. I wake up happy to go in, and I go to bed exhausted but happy I was there.

Let’s talk about the myth of the “useful major” for a second. I was going to be useful to society when I started college. I planned on majoring in education, both elementary and special ed. After each semester, I used to volunteer in a family friend’s classroom. The teacher needed an extra pair of hands, and since no parents were able to come, I was those hands. The emotional weight of what those little kids were going through was too much. I worked in the best school system in the state and one of the best in the country, and we dealt with hunger, homelessness, parental drug abuse, and overcrowding. Going home every day in tears is not healthy. I want to help stop everything that is wrong in our school systems, but maybe interacting with the kids outside of school is just as important. So I didn’t major in something “useful”, and of my friends with “useful” majors (mine was the only unuseful one), I’m one of two with a paying full time job in my field. I know education majors that still don’t have jobs because we have too many teachers. I greatly admire what they do because I cannot do it. I give people directions and get kids excited about their world. I’m pretty sure that that means that my job is useful, right?

So that’s my story. It didn’t take much to get me into museums, but it took a little more to convince me that it was ok that I decided that helping the world is more important than my pay grade.

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Friday Finds (#6)!

Today’s Friday Finds is not going to be as happy as they usually are because of some family stuff going on right now.

1. Bullying

Bullying is (unfortunately) something I see at least once a week. Kids have hidden behind me to keep from being punched (third graders), and on Monday two girls said cruel things to another girl, an absolute stranger. The teased girl’s response? “You all must really hate me or something.” She must have been about fourteen. How sickening. How do you prevent or stop bullying in your museums?

2. Research!

This past week has been spent researching pirates. This means that I’ve been ensconced in 18th century pirate lore, which is pretty cool. One question: why do traveling exhibits now keep their bibliographies on separate websites instead of in the companion books? This makes research difficult for folks who want to keep up to date with exhibit information.

3. Friendly Visitors

Our visitors this past weekend were all super friendly. I think this was partly due to the holiday weekend, and partly due to the fact that everyone was coming to see our one main exhibit! Woohoo!

What have you found in your museums in the past week?

Friday Finds (#5)!

I have had a very rough week in my personal life, so this will be short, sweet, and to the point!

1. Singing in a Bird Exhibit
We have an exhibit on birds right now, and it’s great. Unfortunately, it’s not great for kids under 5 without a LOT of adult supervision. We had 60 under-5’s visit today, and it was soon a mess. I led the kids in singing songs about birds, and we went on a “bird hunt”. It was fun, but I really, really need to reacquaint myself with my under-5’s materials.

I highly recommend keeping songs in your back pocket for circumstances like this one.

2. Keeping Magic Alive
Have you seen this video from the National Museum of American History? I love the way that they keep magic alive and have tie-ins to museum objects and careers! What a fabulous project!

My boyfriend and I went to the Botanical Garden (next to the Capitol Building) yesterday and found fairy houses in a hallway. They’re intricate and beautiful and subtly magical.

What have you found in your museum his week?

Museums, Webcomics, and Talking Cats

I started reading comics in middle school after a visit to the Newseum. I read and re-read them, and after a while I forgot that comics existed (my friends were obsessed with Manga, but my Western brain does not read right to left well). I sometimes used to with that more museums followed the Newseum’s example, as I am a very visual person, and I like little take-homes from exhibits (you should see my brochure collection).

My freshman year of college, I discovered The Dreamer which has to be my favorite webcomic. It takes place between the 18th and 21st centuries (I’m an 18th century nerd), and stars a high school student. It’s full of well researched history, and has amazing art. The history is not presented like museum panels of text (some history Webcomics do that) and it doesn’t assume that you know who this guy was and why he was important (it even has some great important women). You discover the information along with Bea, the main character who has time travel dreams (only the best kinds of dreams). As a history nerd that has been to Mount Vernon and Colonial Williamsburg so many times that she doesn’t need a map anymore, I highly recommend this comic. Also, Lora Innes, the creator, was asked to make wall panel comics for a Nathan Hale museum, so this comic should become a big deal in the museum world (at least I want it to). Its first act is ending, so now is a good time to catch up! It updates Wednesdays and Fridays, and be sure to take a peek at Lora’s other project, the Paper Wings Podcast as well.

Lackadaisy Cats is another great history webcomic that is super entertaining. Sure, the main characters are drawn as cats, but sometimes not seeing the visual humanity of characters makes them more human. The history scholarship, like The Dreamer, is strong, and the artwork is also stunning. Lackadaisy doesn’t update regularly, but that is OK, because when it does update, the pages are beautiful and every panel tells a story. I didn’t like post-American Revolution history until I read this comic, so I’m really glad that I read it.

Dovecote Crest is set at an obscure Civil War battlefield. I’ve volunteered at one (thanks to Dovecote), so it’s perfect. It’s a great read that is pretty much over. Make sure you read it, though.

I am also big fan of That Deaf Guy for a very different reason. It is a webcomic about a deaf man, his hearing wife, and their adorable son. Cedric, the kid, is hilarious. The comic has also opened my eyes to accessibility perspectives that I hadn’t thought of before. I recommend it for the read and for those of us unexposed to Deaf culture to learn more while having fun.

One last webcomic: Dreamless. I can’t find a link, but it is over and visually stunning. Find it and read it. EDIT: I found the link!

Got a favorite webcomic? Share in the comments!

Friday Finds (#4)!

Hello all! How has your week been in your museum?

One of our two exhibits, 1001 Inventions: Discover the Golden Age of Muslim Civilization, left this past Sunday. What a weekend we had! On Saturday we had 1,500 visitors, which meant our little museum was pretty packed! Since it left (and we only have one (ticketed) exhibit), we’ve had under 100 visitors each day. Talk about variability! We’ve found ways to keep entertained with trivia and counting games, which encourage us to pay attention to exhibit content. Let’s see what I’ve found this week:

1. When it Rains, it Pours
Have you ever noticed that on the days that museums get busy, they get really busy? Ours sure did! Questions of the same kind also seem to pile up — after a month of nobody asking me for a brochure, everyone wanted one! We also have a well-known speaker program through my organization, and our spring pamphlet just went out. Tonight’s wolf program sold out two weeks ago, but everyone wants a ticket now! I love how excited people are about our programs.

2. Autism in the Museum Blog
I am super excited about a blog I found this week: Autism in the Museum I really want to make our museum accessible for our autistic visitors and their families, and this looks like it will be a great resource.

3. Quiet Exhibit Fun!
It was very quiet in the museum Monday and Tuesday and we decided to learn more about the exhibit — we pcounted the number of screens (37) and stuffed birds (14) in our birds exhibit. It’s a super visual exhibit, and actually doesn’t have a lot of text. I like exhibits like it because they’re a little less visually exhausting (but I do miss having some text).

Got a favorite way your museum staff has fun when there are fewer visitors? Let me know in the comments!

Friday Finds (#3)

It’s Friday (night!) and what a long day it has been. Between the groups (8 scheduled, 6 visited) each with 50-100 students (and in one case, seniors), the ending of an exhibit, and after a long week… I’m ready for a good night’s rest. Tomorrow we expect 6 groups and over 1000 visitors, when our museum does not often have over 1000 on a weekend. Yeah, it’s going to be exhausting. The good thing is that I’ve learned a WHOLE LOT this week alone, especially from the school groups.

Things I’ve found in the museum:

1. Things in Places They Should Not Be

I found a waterbottle and a packet inside one of our exhibit structures today. I once found a kid inside of the structure (he couldn’t reach over the wall to play the game, so he climbed inside of the game) when the exhibit first opened, but I’ve never had to climb inside of it to pull something out. Now I can say I’ve been inside of a game.

2. Kids Need Structure

I admire teachers for all that they do. Many of our visiting teachers are great, and I really admire what they do with their students. I also understand that they and the chaperons are sometimes unprepared for what they are going to do with the students inside of the museum. This is something that I try to absolve by introducing the exhibit through a conversation. First I ask the kids what they should do inside the museum. They answer, and I ask until we reach the most important answers. I then ask what they shouldn’t do in the museum. This usually gets more hands… and the most interesting answers. My “favorite” answer today was that they shouldn’t fight inside the museum (fourth grade girl, which made me wonder about what has happened in previous museum trips with this school). This prepares the kids because they are hearing it from each other. I had to return to one group recently to remind them how to behave at a museum. One chaperon gathered his designated group around to hear. This was great. Then, when I started talking, I realized that I had a cluster of elementary school kids surrounding me with big grins — not just because someone was paying attention to what was going on, but because someone had decided to take charge. This experience repeated itself three times today (one child even suggested how to get her classmates’ attention). Sometimes we had extra time between exhibits, so I asked the kids content-related but easy questions. They didn’t have packets, they didn’t have anyone telling them what to do, but these kids actually learned something! Woohoo! I still  believe that structured time would have been much more successful for our hundred-plus fifth grade students. What if their groups traded places with each other at each pod (location in the exhibit) at a certain time? Most of our exhibits are interactive/video based content, so that could be easily feasible. Structure probably would have prevented the bullying that I stopped outside the exhibit today, too.

 

3. City Access New York

My dream job would be to run public programs for children and adults with disabilities, as well as working with museums to make their spaces more inviting to those with disabilities. Yesterday I discovered City Access New York (http://www.cityaccessny.org). WOW! How did I not know this organization existed? It’s an organization/group that is dedicated to bringing visitors with disabilities to the museum. Does anyone know if there are any organizations like this in the Washington, DC area?

 

4. Staff

My museum is a unique museum because it is part of a much larger organization. We often have staff walking through the hallways between the two exhibits. Some have gotten to know us, and some haven’t. Today I was approached by multiple staff members about how busy we’ve been and I have been asked about what is coming in next. I love the fact that the other staff are taking an interest. It fosters and ownership that I did not see when I started working at the museum. I recently started my own mission when it came to the non-museum/non-exhibit staff: say hello to every one that passed my spot. I’m starting to see it work. A number of staff members that I say hello to are now replying, and I’m seeing them show visitors where to go. It’s amazing, beautiful, wonderful and I love my job so much more now, because I am seeing an impact that I am making on my museum.

 

5. Conversation of the day: 

[In elevator]

Staff member: Are you busy today?

Me: Yeah, we have a lot of large groups of kids today.

Staff member: I like large groups of kids.

[Exit elevator, walk out to main hall, where a ton of students are standing]

Staff member: I like small groups of kids!

 

6. Question of the day:

“Are the female birds (of paradise) all the same or are they different like the males?”

 

What have you found this week in your museum?

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