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Whoops!

Apparently, I am very bad at this whole posting thing. I also appear to repost posts or drastically change posts I have already reposted. I’m sorry about that. Everything should be (mostly in order) now.

As a fun thing (based on what I overheard from the AAM conference), what mistakes have you made in your museum? How did you learn from them?

My most notorious include directing visitors to the wrong bathrooms, mixing up my right and left directions, and telling visitors that objects were in exhibits that weren’t in the exhibits. I also told my visitors not to look at the horrible maps in our exhibit two weeks ago… probably not the best idea. Now I pay more attention to what I say and how I say it. I’m still working on the hands thing! I also spend a lot more time memorizing content in the exhibits before the museum opens, especially since we change exhibits so often!

Warehouse 13 as a Museum #3: Things We Can Learn

I’m sorry that I have not been around much recently. My work environment has been through some major changes, so I’ve been under a lot of stress.

Instead, let’s get talking about the tv show that keeps me dreaming about museums: Warehouse 13!

Has anyone else been enjoying season 4.5 of Warehouse 13 as much as I have? How amazing is the current theme of grief and recovery? It’s timely for my family, which is recovering from the loss of my teenage niece.

Warehouse 13 has inspired a lot of my work in museums, and I believe that it has the potential to teach us a few things.

Let’s get started!

1. Who I Am is Who I Am

One of the amazing things about Warehouse 13 is that certain things a lot of other tv shows turn into plots are mentioned as parts of the characters, but never used as plot devices. Steve Jinks (my favorite addition to the original cast) is gay, but that doesn’t come first in his description. If I was going to describe him to you, his Buddism might come up as well, but really, his main identity (as represented in the show) is as big brother/partner to Claudia and Warehouse agent. Claudia is the techie-hacker teenager (now young adult), but everyone sees her and allows her to be seen as that, but she is maturing and growing into her future role as caretaker (speaking of which, the motion comic goes into that, so play around with it, ok?). Artie is her opposite and father figure, and he, as well as Mrs. Frederic and a few Regents represent a diversity in age. The leaders (the Regents) of Warehouse 13 are quite diverse, representing many countries and cultures. Different faiths are represented as well. Again, many of these things are mentioned, but they do not define the character, just our many facets and labels do not define us.

What can this teach us in museums?

Just like the characters, there is/can be/should be a lot of diversity in our visitors. Some will be history or art nerds and know everything about your topic, while some don’t like the topic, but were brought there by friends and family (Myka and Pete’s relationship with the Warehouse/each other is a classic example of this). Some will be old and despise technology and some will want everything to be updated (Artie and Claudia). They will come from many faiths or have no religious beliefs (the whole team). We have to remember that one label does not fit all.

2. Embracing Movements

Little known fact: I think the steampunk aesthetic is fascinating. A little too industrial for me, but fascinating. I see its potential for embracing history nerds, and this gives me hope.

Warehouse 13 did not start out as an overtly steampunk series, but recently it has embraced it more and more. Why not? If there is someone who is a potential, albeit specialized group, why don’t you reach out once in a while to embrace it?

This may seem like I am going against the previous thing we can learn, but I’m not. Warehouse 13 doesn’t say “this is a show for steampunk fans” or “this is a show for history nerds”. It uses demographics and interests to its advantage, but does not let them define it.

What can this teach museums?

Sometimes I see museums focus so much on their identity (or neglect it) that they can’t appeal to anyone. Our local city museum is so focused on our local history that they’ve forgotten that they stopped teaching city history in the county schools.

National Geographic Society does this right. It’s a geographic society, but its goal is go share the world and all that is in it without becoming exclusive. The magazine addresses many topics, and definitely moves towards certain movements (anti-fracking, climate change), reaching towards certain interest groups. Is this a bad thing? No, because just as Warehouse 13 reaches towards steampunk, steampunk is not its identity.

Why not have an exhibit or an event that appeals to a certain community but has broad reaches? Nina Simon has recently addressed it on Museum 2.0 (http://www.museumtwo.blogspot.com),and I highly recommend that you check it out.

3. If You Can’t Do It One Way…

Time travel. Everyone seems to be doing it now, and Warehouse 13 is no exception. What I like about Warehouse 13 is how they treat time travel. It could become overused on the series, but instead they’ve used variations on the theme. The first instance of time travel was not physical time travel, but mental (using H.G. Wells’ time machine), where the characters inhabit the minds of someone from the past for a limited time. Recently Artie was the only character that time traveled (well, rewound time), but there were serious repercussions (and not the usual “saw himself” thing, either, but unleashing a horrible evil), and in a recent episode, Pete and Myka “time traveled” by getting stuck in a book from the 40’s. Each instance was unique and pretty awesome, minus Artie unleashing evil.

What can museums learn from this?

Variations on a theme are always important in museums. Nobody is going to enjoy the same content in the same way, so why not change it up? What if you had multiple programs on the same topic in an exhibit, but each was tailored to different learning styles? What about mini-talks in the exhibits based on related topics? There are so many variations on themes that are possible. Ask your staff for opinions, even the people you don’t see very often. They might have the best or most unique insights.

4. Endless Wonder

Warehouse 13’s catchphrase is “Endless Wonder”. It promotes fascination with history, always being open to new ideas, and of course, a sense of wonder.

There is always something new around the corner at the Warehouse, and the show embraces it wholeheartedly. Even stories that are revisited have something new to explore. Endless wonder is a chance to see the world and all that is in it, the good and the bad.

What can this teach museums?

Embrace endless wonder. It is as simple as that. We cannot and will not know everything in our lifetimes, so why not promote wonder, which is the springboard to learning?

The other day a coworker told me that he (agreeing with most of my coworkers) thought that first person historical interpretation was “hokey”. My first good experiences with history were through first person interpretation. Those experiences were my springboard of learning. I wanted to know so much more from those moments alone. My first experience, by the way, was when I was six. I had met endless wonder and embraced it. What about your next visitors? Will they wonder, or will they be lost in the information?

5. Stick With a Theme

Ok, a moment of bias here — the fourth season of Warehouse 13 is my very favorite season. It’s the longest at 20 episodes (the first three seasons were 13 episodes each), but they have managed to keep it consistent with a single over-arching theme (death, loss, and grief). Warehouse 13 has always done a very good job at having consistently themed individual episodes, but when they tie a whole season together, it’s amazing. Also, they had a gigantic seven-month hiatus and villain change in the second half if the season, and the season is still ridiculously strong. The current arc (mostly the past two episodes) has Myka dealing with her own mortality while competing against a group of “villains” that are immortal but yearn for mortality. Meanwhile, everyone (minus the ingenious evil bad guys and their progeny) is still recovering from the death of Leena in some way, tying the story together. This keeps me involved in the story. I want Myka to be ok and for the villains to find their peace. I want the Warehouse agents to grieve the loss of their friend in their own time. I want to know what happens in the next season because there are only eight episodes left of the whole show and this theme has got me tied to it like a gerbil to a sunflower seed. That is the impact of theme.

What can this teach us in museums?

When an exhibit is episodic and does have a theme tying it together, it can really suffer. An exhibit I work in right now struggles with the connections between the stories because the common theme is both abstract (the organization and the world) and specific (individual mini-themes). With no common story, I struggle to connect the dots. This does NOT mean that the exhibit is not strong. It is. It just has nothing universal to tie it together.

My favorite museum exhibits (Written in Bone and Birds of Paradise) have individual episodic sections, but have a general, tying theme. For Written in Bone, it is both the topic (human remains) and the time period (colonization of the Chesapeake Bay in the late 17th and early 18th centuries) that tie together the individual stories. It also helps that the stories are presented in the same way. Birds of Paradise (now in Traverse City, Michigan) ties every space together with two common themes: the adaptations of the birds and the scientists that studied them. Stuffed birds and photos do not just appear in the Victorian Era or Photography sections, but run throughout the exhibit. The same wood paneling is used throughout the individual sections and stand-alone cases, tying the whole exhibit together. The themes hold the multi-faceted, sectional exhibit together, making many sections a giant whole.

As you go throughout your week, think about how other pieces of popular culture teach us about museums. I know Warehouse 13 is not the only one. You might be surprised.

Warehouse 13 in the Museum #2: Can History Hurt?

This past week, news broke that the Historic Jamestowne dig and the Smithsonian (through the National Museum of Natural History) have discovered a chilling find: evidence of survival cannibalism. Not just cannibalism, but cannibalism of a child, an English girl about 14 years old nicknamed “Jane”.

Jamestown is going to be remembered differently from now on. Every time I mention Jamestown to someone now, they could easily remember the new findings. They might not see the facial reconstruction or know why this happened (worst drought in that region in hundreds of years, horrible relations with Powhatan empire because the charters set the colonists up to rely on them, and relatively inexperienced leaders/men/etc), but there will be a negative association attached to the colony.

Warehouse 13 addresses this issue head on. The negative associations with history, the points where history hurts, are hidden because this is what the Warehouse exists to do: protect the world from history that hurts. Every artifact has its downside with its gift. Even historical figures, like H.G. Wells, have a capacity to hurt. Fairy tales even have the capacity to hurt (Cinderella and Pinocchio were the worst, as the former turned people into glass and the latter basically created an evil villain that destroyed the Warehouse).

Many of these stories were altered so that there was an element of evil to them, but sometimes they weren’t. On the show a pair of binoculars from the Enola Gay turned people into fiery shadows, hearkening back to what their user witnessed, and a board from one of the Titanic’s lifeboats gives the holder hypothermia.

The goal of the Warehouse agents is to collect these things. They snag them, bag them, and tag them so they can hide them away to be forgotten by history, diffuse them so they can’t harm anyone else, and essentially save the world.

The thing is, we can’t do that. We don’t have a magic warehouse to store painful history in (do we?). The current season is dealing with this topic head on. Artie saved the Warehouse, but unleashed evil in himself. Now there are two historic figures out to harm each other (and most likely at the expense of the rest of the world). From the perspective of the show, history can hurt, but what can we do about it? We can lock it away, but that can be just as harmful.

Sometimes we do hide painful history. The Real Pirates exhibit was cancelled in its initial location (Tampa, Florida) because it never mentioned the fact that the ship started as a slave ship. The Korean war is mentioned twice inside of the Price of Freedom exhibit on American wars in the National Museum of American History.

Sometimes we don’t. We have a Holocaust museum here in DC and a number of exhibits talk about the price of dropping the atom bomb. There are now exhibits on slavery at the homes of the Founding Fathers. The Real Pirates exhibit has now added a section on slavery and the Whydah’s history as a slave ship.

History can hurt. As we discover more about our past, we either try to hide it or exhibit it.

But what if… by keeping it in a museum, we’re doing both? Objects can be put in storage or taken out of storage. Important figures can be purposefully forgotten and purposefully remembered. “Unimportant” figures can be forgotten and then rediscovered. Whole passages of time can be completely ignored while others are remembered. We don’t just do this in museums, we do this in our classrooms and in our own daily lives. There is so much “good” history to explore that we don’t always feel the need to explore the bad. Should we always focus on the good history, though? Should we always focus on the bad?

No.

We used to have an exhibit on the Titanic at “my” museum. I struggled with the exhibit for a long time, because it had both “good” history and “bad” history. Everyone was so focused on the story and the fascination of the “tragedy” that I realized that we actually forgot about the real story. The sinking of the Titanic hurt because it was on so many minds. It was the most luxurious, had all the millionaires and was supposed to be the best ship ever. Then it sank, taking nearly 2000 people with it. Young, old, rich, and poor. Entire families gone. The word Titanic has become synonymous with sinking ships and big movies and tragedy and England and the United States, but until I did my own research, I never knew that people were immigrating on the doomed ship. People who were Norwegian like my great grandparents, Italian like my friend, and French like my sister’s friend. This is the tragedy of the Titanic — we remember the horrible story, study what happened and ask why, but we forget that there were real people on a very real ship. Good things came from the sinking as well. The Titanic has saved other lives. We now have more lifeboats required on ships and actual lifeboat drills. We now know what sea life does to a sunken ship. Archaeological understanding has grown. By focusing on the tragedy and the story, we forget the good. By focusing on the good, we forget the bad. By forgetting the bad, we are allowing our history to hurt us.

This is one of the many reasons why I watch Warehouse 13. It looks at history as something that can help and something that can hurt. The Cinderella dagger turned its user into glass, preventing her from harming anyone again. The H.G. Wells character, female in the series, tried to destroy the world in her grief over the loss of her daughter, but in the end saved the Warehouse Agents when the Warehouse was destroyed, allowing them to save the warehouse and the world. Now they are able to heal and forgive.

To understand that past is to heal from it. Without recognizing that with the price of the Titanic’s sinking, more lives have been saved, we will never be able to continue to save lives. Without recognizing that the Jamestown settlers had such a great need that they were compelled to consume the flesh of one of their own, we will never be able to recognize and understand other instances of survival cannibalism in our own history and others’.

In the future, if Warehouse 13 has a fifth season, I wonder if they will mention the story of Jamestown. Will they mention the history we have selectively remembered, like Pocahontas and John Smith and “cannibalism”… or will they talk about the reality of those horrible early years, including the drought, horrible treatment of the people that already lived in that area, the first slaves, and “Jane”, and at the same remember the reality that Jamestown was not only the first surviving British settlement of the New World but the first home of a small democracy on the New World’s shores that would later lead to the United States? I hope they do.

I will never be able to look at Jamestown the same again. The brass luster that has always been on it is now a bit more tarnished. History hurts… but we can’t hide it away in a warehouse. We can’t place an object on display and never mention its significance — both good and bad.

History can hurt, but without addressing it, we will never heal. We will always look back, and then look away quickly with our hands over our eyes and ears, preventing them from being open to help. If we cannot help, we cannot heal. If we continue to hide away from the pain of history, how will we be able to learn from it to help our future?

In the future, I will visit Jamestown and the Written in Bone exhibit and see “Jane”. I will learn from my nation’s history. It’s going to hurt. I’m going to be sad, but through tear-stained eyes, I will open my eyes, ears, mind, hands and heart for the good.

History can hurt, but we need to heal from it, not hide it away. Like the Warehouse agents, I will recognize the downsides, accept that risk, and continue on for the greater good. History demands it.

Warehouse 13 as a Museum #1

It’s no secret that one of my favorite television shows is Warehouse 13 (just read my first post, Wonder). It is smart, funny, has a heart, and often leads me down the history nerd rabbit hole. Warehouse 13 has an interesting way of presenting history — it does not always adhere to actual fact, but uses an empathetic fact and object lessons to help viewers feel the historical emotional truth that lies underneath.

Warehouse 13’s first episode starts off with an introduction to its two leads, Myka Bering (Joanne Kelly), and Pete Lattimer (Eddie McClintock), “coincidentally” inside a museum. They both work for the Secret Service, and are there to protect the President. I don’t want to spoil the whole story, but I will tell you that the events send the two agents to a new job — working for Warehouse 13.

The Warehouse is a repository of objects that have been effected by the historical people and events that they are connected to. From ancient history to modern history, from folklore to literary figures, if you like a period of history, it’s probably been mentioned in the series. Every object has been collected because it does something weird. From a chair that makes people act out their deepest (angry) desires to a teapot that puts people inside of video games, to a kettle that grants wishes (or creates ferrets), every object does something. Artie, the agent in charge of the Warehouse, describes it like this: imagine giving Thomas Jefferson a radio. What would he have done with it? Artie says that after studying it, Jefferson would have probably locked it away. This is what the Warehouse agents do: snag (collect artifacts), bag (diffuse them) and tag (basic accessions), the unofficial catchphrase of the series.

This leads to a few of my own wonderings about museums.

When we put objects inside of our museums, why are we putting them there? To protect them? To protect the story they tell? To retell their story? To share them with the public (obviously not what the Warehouse agents are doing)?

What do you think? What is the function of the museum in this day and age?

Warehouse 13 Returns Today!

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Warehouse 13 Returns today, so I am going to do a weekly post series about how the series talks about museums! See you later in the week!

Friday Finds (#9!)

This week, I’ve found:

1. Random Fact Collectors

At work we need to keep occupied when it’s slow. Recently we’ve kept busy through trivia questions. Hooray for trivia! I’ve discovered that I’m not the only random fact collector, which is great.

2. Interesting Marketing

I’m writing this post on the Metro, which means that I see a lot of ads. I’m fascinated by the National Aquarium’s tactics, which are semi-romantic in flavor. They say “Find someone special” and show two butterflyfish “kissing.” I’m now considering doing another date night there. Heh. I really like the National Geographic’s Birds of Paradise ad, because it has the same tone as the exhibit: scientific, but goofy.

3. Feathered Friends

I’m a big bird nerd, so I was very excited when I spotted a pair of house finches nesting at the museum.

4. Puppets

I am also a fan of Folkmanis puppets. The company’s puppets tend to be well made and very detailed animals. One of the nature centers I grew up in used them regularly. What a way to teach about nature! Five out of my seven were bought in museums.

What did you see in museums this week?

Found Things Friday (#8)

Spring break season is upon us now, which means lots of visitors, cute kids, and for my museum, a new entrance/ticket booth!

1. Open Hands, Open Heart

“Open hands, open heart” is my life’s philosophy. If my hands are open, I can help, which also opens them for receiving. This can be exemplified in a small moment that I had in the museum on Monday. One of my main responsibilities inside our Pirates exhibit is to keep visitors from touching the cannon. I saw an older couple with their hands all over one of the four cannon. Instead of immediately reprimanding them, like I usually do, I tried a redirect. “Are you looking for the F?” (there is a letter F on the trunnions of the first cannon). “Yes!” I showed the visitors where the F was, saying out loud that I was not going to touch the cannon because we are not supposed to. This then sparked a few questions, then a full conversation. I will not forget that moment because it exemplifies the open hands (helping them find the cannon), open heart (learning about redirection and appearing more open to the visitors while enforcing rules) philosophy.

2. Fear-Fighting Friendship

The biggest problem we have in Pirates is the fact that the exhibit is a bit scary for small children. On Wednesday, there was a little girl that was scared of part of the exhibit and didn’t want to enter it with her grandma. I waved, and offered to join them in their walk through the exhibit. The little girl was hesitant at first, but soon she was walking alongside me through the exhibit, and even waved to the mannequins when I waved to them (I greet them like old friends because they’re less scary that way). Once we passed the mannequins, she showed me her necklace — it was from her great grandma. I hovered as the girl and her grandma finished the exhibit, but they didn’t need me. The little girl had a brave companion, and I did, too.

3. Appearances

To tag along with the previous thing, I have used the appearance of bravery to help other small children be “brave” in going through our exhibits. If I am brave, then they wan to be, too.

Likewise, if your ticket booth looks professional and friendly, your visitors will treat you in a professional and friendly manner. We went from an outdoor plywood box to an indoor wood (bamboo) desk at work, and I cannot believe the difference! There are fewer complaints about prices (and they went up) and the museum in general. It feels like a museum, it looks like a museum, so by golly it must be a museum!

4. Spring Break!

In Washington, DC, if we’re lucky, spring break and the Cherry Blossoms appear around the same time. We’re lucky this year, which means that we’re topping 1000 visitors almost every day this week. It’s exhausting (500 on a weekend is a good weekend), but so fulfilling. The best part about spring break is that it’s short, meaning families are being much more intentional about their plans, which means that most of them already know about our exhibits (score!).

How has putting on brave appearances helped you at your museum? How do you help scared kids?

What have you found in a museum this week?

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