Yesterday, a friend from high school (and far outside the museum world) asked me what my ultimate museum dream job was once I graduated from my MA program. I’m not going to lie, I was a little pressed to find the answer. What is my dream job? I’ve thought about it loads of times, what I want to do when I graduate, but I’ve also noticed that the answer has changed dramatically over the past two years.
When I first started my MA program, I was convinced that I could only do well in a collections environment, not dealing with the public, meticulously researching old artifacts to discover their provenance and going home at the end of the day confident in the knowledge that I had served my purpose. But now, that really isn’t my goal. I still want to work in collections – where else am I going to be able to do research on old artifacts?? – but I don’t want that information to remain static in the storage room, hidden away in a database, accessible only by those with passwords and knowledge of how to navigate the program. I want to increase the accessibility of my research, and the research of countless other curatorial assistants, associates, and researchers. I want interns to know that the research they do during their semester-long internship goes somewhere beyond the object files. Most importantly, I want the public to know what it is we’re researching, why we’re doing the research, why it’s important to the museum and to the community, etc.
I think half the allure of museums is what isn’t on display in the galleries. People are constantly asking me about collections not on display; pieces they remember seeing 30 years ago, do I think they’ll ever come back out? Those kinds of things. Before, when the internet was not as prolific as it is now, and when museums weren’t on social media, it was understandable for the off-display collections to be a mystery. But now, it isn’t: people want to know. Visitors want to know about conservation techniques; why certain objects have been moved off-display; why collections research is never really complete; what the importance of voucher specimens in a natural history collection are; most importantly, why we collect in the first place. And while it isn’t always feasible to explain all of this to visitors in person (unless you are able to have viewable conservation labs, like the MFA), the far-reaching capability of social media, blogs, and museum websites has given us a tool that some museums have taken full advantage of, and others have ignored. These tools have given us the ability to explain so much more of what we do to visitors who are interested in learning more than what we can deliver in our brick-and-mortar buildings.
Take Emily Graslie’s YouTube series The Brain Scoop. The Field Museum has given her the opportunity to share with the world the inner workings of the museum, giving online visitors a chance to see what kind of research goes on behind the scenes; the stories of some of the specimens that have been in the collection since the early days of the museum; and what really goes on in the exhibits shop. Graslie hosts meet-ups at the museum and around Chicago, encouraging her fans to visit the museum and see the real thing as opposed to only engaging online.
For a while, this is what I thought I wanted to do – become what Graslie had achieved, just at another museum. And to a degree, I still would like to do that. I would love to be the face of a museum, sharing the amazing secrets and mysteries of the collection with folks who are genuinely interested. But I don’t want to be another Emily Graslie. I want people to know me for me. Graslie has increased the accessibility of the Field Museum, and that is what I would like to be able to do for whatever museum I end up working for. But not just through the online community. I want to help with education, bringing school groups through the storage areas and to labs to show them what kind of work goes on at museums. I want to engage with community groups to help understand their needs and what else the museum can do to foster a relationship within the community we serve. Sure, Chief Curiosity Correspondent is an amazing job title, but I want something like, Collections Accessibility Coordinator. I want to go to schools, to community centers, and be able to communicate with these constituents and bring them the museum when they can’t come in. I want people to be able to appreciate and understand the importance of museums and cultural heritage institutions, even if they have never been to one.
In a nutshell, I want to increase access to collections through increased transparency and technology. I want to share everything that is amazing about the institution I work at with the world. So…does anyone have a job like that?
Recently, my sister and 2.5 year-old niece came to visit me at the natural history museum I work at. It was the first time they had come to visit this museum, but I know that my sister has taken my niece to the Acton Discovery Museums at least twice, so she has had some experiences within museum settings. What happened on their visit only reaffirmed my feelings towards the serious need for change at my home museum, and I got to experience first hand the frustrations of bringing a child to visit a science museum with minimal interactivity in its exhibit space.
Before I go any further, I just want to explicitly state that the views expressed in this post (and in all my blog posts past, present, and future) are the views and opinions of myself only, and do not reflect in any way the opinions of either of my employer museums. I think I’ve put that disclaimer in my “About” page as well, but I just want to reiterate it here. This blog is my way of understanding my field, expressing concerns and delights, and interacting with other professionals online; it does not seek to criticize beyond reason. So, moving on…
My sister and niece spent about an hour in the museum with me, primarily in the zoological galleries. We checked out the evolution gallery, the arthropods room (where my niece kept yelling “yuck!” and “gross!” at everything in jars, and my sister was completely obsessed with the tarantula), and went into the photography gallery, where my niece listed the animals in the room. We moved on to the fossil exhibits, but it was already becoming obvious that my niece was starting to lose interest. She was running, gently hitting the glass, and her constant question of “what’s that?” was starting to become less frequent. We got to the dinosaur gallery, and I was really hoping she would be blown away by Kronosaurus queenslandicus, our huge fossilized pliosaur; but alas, she was more interested in climbing on the benches and jumping in front of the window. She became momentarily interested in Plateosaurus, but only because my sister tried to engage her with the fossil by asking my niece to compare her feet (hands, head, etc.) with those of the dinosaur behind the glass.
This continued as we moved through the galleries, checking out the taxidermied animals in Africa and the New England Forests. My sister seemed pretty interested in how it was possible to preserve animal hides and fur for so long, and thought it was sad that the chest of our lion cub is literally bursting open; but these aren’t questions a toddler asks. She had some fun in the New England Forests, because she could touch things and we could pick her up to look in to the fallen logs and find different bugs and birds (more on that in a second). The Great Mammal Hall was engaging enough because my niece knew so many of the animals in the room, and ran around trying to find the ones she knew so she could tell us their names. But she was running, and jumping, and yelling, and being generally hyper, like kids are wont to do. Her reactions to the big cats in the Asia gallery were funny (each of the cats has a snarl on its face, which didn’t scare my niece, but every time she saw one she said, “He’s going to get us!”), and she seemed mildly interested in looking at shells through a magnifying glass in Mollusks.
But if there was one unifying thing about their exhibit, though, it was this: in every gallery, around every corner, my niece would say, “I want to touch!”
If you haven’t been to the natural history museum I work at, I will be quite honest with you: there is nothing for you to touch, unless a volunteer is out on the floor with one of the discovery carts.
I felt bad. As an employee, it’s frustrating to see visitors’ expectations dashed as they quickly realize that there are limited opportunities to actively learn and engage within our museum. I also felt bad because I had to watch my sister deal with my niece and her building energy level; at one point she even had to take my niece into a corner to remind her that they weren’t outside, and that the museum wasn’t a place for running and yelling. I asked my sister a few days later what her thoughts on the visit were, and she said that she wished there had been “interactive areas for younger kids, and more touchable things.” The comment she made that stood out to me (especially considering the quote you’ll see in two paragraphs), was that “going somewhere to be lectured at isn’t fun”, and “who wants to go to a glass museum where you can’t touch anything? What kid wants to do that?”
Their visit, combined with a National Science Foundation article I read yesterday on active learning in undergraduate STEM classes, inspired me to do some more research and write this blog post. Now, I’m not an educator by any stretch of the imagination, but as someone who grew up visiting places like the Museum of Science, the Boston Children’s Museum, and the Acton Discovery Museums, I can say that hands-on science learning is important to developing young minds and allowing them to discover how to interact with the natural world around them. Kids need a place to engage with science in an environment that isn’t dictated by grades and tests; that they aren’t going to do something wrong and get disciplined by a teacher. Because science is just crazy awesome, and who wants to get yelled at for thinking differently about dissecting a sheep’s eye in a way different from what the instructions tell you to do? (I may be speaking from personal experience…)
My main argument/proposal is that kids (and adults!) learn more and take away more from science museum experiences when they can actively participate in what they are learning, instead of being lectured to by a label on a wall or a video screen. Scott Freeman, a University of Washington biology lecturer (who authored the study the NSF article is about), said it better than I could: “We’ve got to stop killing performance and interest in science by lecturing and instead help [students] think like scientists” (“Press Release”). Replace “students” with “visitors”, and this is the essence of what I feel needs to change at my natural history museum. We spend much of our time in the galleries essentially lecturing our visitors – the text might not even be that long, but the vocabulary isn’t necessarily accessible. Instead of explaining everything, there are ways to allow visitors to experience the facts and information we want them to walk away with. “Want to know the difference between igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rocks? Here, touch them! See how they feel and look! Get up close and really look at them!” would be an example of something we could do.
A great example of a static exhibit becoming more accessible (because that’s really the heart of the matter here isn’t it?) is the New England Habitats exhibit at the Museum of Science. This old-school diorama exhibit has been revamped with sensory stations. Visitors can now listen to the sounds of Vermont’s Green Mountains, smell the scents of Crane’s Beach, and feel the difference between the pelt of a moose and a beaver. All of these additions only enhance the visitor experience. Do they require more care as they take a literal beating every day from thousands of visitors touching them? Absolutely. But the visitor takes something away from the experience, especially if the family engaging with the diorama has never been to the Green Mountains. Maybe the experience they had in that exhibit will encourage them to go, and have a full-on meaning making experience. Sure, there are exhibit labels at each diorama, but now that there are participatory objects for the visitors to engage with, the labels aren’t lecturing, they are adding to the experience.
In constructing this post, I did some digging on the internet for other museums and institutions that are proponents of active play and engagement for kids. Through the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) I found an article by Judy Diamond from the mid-90s (a little old, but the argument is still relevant) that looked at the intersection of playing and learning in exhibits, and how this kind of engagement can create significance for visitors (young and old). She did a study in 1987 with the Explainers at the Exploratorium, and discovered this: “When a child invents a new way of using an exhibit, at least two important things occur. One, the child constructs personal meaning from an exhibit, and two, the child acquires the ability to approach a task by inventing an original solution” (Diamond). Isn’t one of the goals of museums to facilitate meaning-making? If personal meaning for a child involves playing and touching exhibit objects, then should we, as museum professionals, push for greater access in this area?
I also looked at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia, PA. First of all, now I desperately want to go, and I don’t even have kids. But more to the point, the entire museum is dedicated to the idea of “purposeful play”, where every exhibit is constructed to allow children to learn at their own pace through “the power of play”. What I noticed when browsing their exhibits page was that each exhibit space offers kids an opportunity to explore an aspect of adult life: engineering (“City Capers”), physical science (“Flight Fantasy”), handy life skills like repairing your car (“Roadside Attractions”), natural sciences (“River Adventures”), and history (“Centennial Exploration”). In these spaces you can pretend to be a doctor, a jungle explorer, a pilot, a mechanic…the list goes on. This kind of play allows kids to be exposed to a variety of subjects that might pique their interest, starting a chain reaction that can snare their fascination in history or natural sciences early. (Coming from my own experience, my early exposure to history museums set me on a path of passionate appreciation of history, so much so that I graduated with a BA in it).
I started working in my natural history museum when I was 22. Before then, I had limited exposure to science during my college career, and I only realized how much I actually enjoyed physical and natural sciences when I took a physical geology class my senior year. It’s been 3 years since I started working at this museum, and I am now fascinated by everything we have in it. I think natural history is an amazing subject that desperately needs a renaissance, not only because it’s incredibly interesting but because it will help so many people understand why fisheries collapse and pollinators die off (in other words, it helps make the natural world make sense). However, I’m an adult, and I have the power to look up information as soon as I need to know it, and I can absorb most of the exhibit labels with minimal difficulties. A child my niece’s age (and basically any kid younger than a 9th grader, I think) cannot possibly be expected to learn much of anything from the wall labels, even with their parents with them. A child needs physical tools to facilitate learning: “Young children learn best through their senses and physical interactions with the world around them” (“Value of Play”). In my mind, this could be as simple as what was done at the Museum of Science: create synthetic pelts for kids to touch. Put out antlers and horns and bones. Have more child-friendly interactive spaces. Have a solid schedule for gallery guides to be out with carts to help kids.
I could honestly go on and on about this subject, even though I’m not an educator in the slightest. My goal with this post was to vocalize my concerns and seek advice for how to make suggestions to those who have the power to make changes. Every weekend I see hundreds of families at my museum, and I want to know how they think we could serve them better.
Maybe the best way to create change is to start by asking them.
Last month there was a flurry of activity regarding photography, especially photography in museums. I spent a good 12 hours on planes over Christmas vacation and read through a few of the articles discussing the pros and cons of photography, how it can affect our memories, why it should or shouldn’t happen, etc. The articles were interesting and opinions ranged from one end of the spectrum to the other, and made the flight go by a bit quicker.
I wholeheartedly agree with Nina Simon’s 2009 post from her blog Museum 2.0, wherein she expresses that museum photo policies should be as open as possible. Personally, the strongest argument I feel is that when visitors take photos in your museum and then share those photos, you are getting free advertising (as Nina points out in her post). Who wouldn’t want interesting, new, different images of their galleries and exhibit halls posted on social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram? When others see those photos, they might very well be inclined to visit themselves. I’ve had this experience several times; in fact, just yesterday I took a photo of a deinonychus fossil for Fossil Friday and shared it to my Instagram feed. Within an hour, a friend of mine asked what the admission prices were, whether or not there were guided tours, and when the best time to visit was. Sharing photos = free marketing materials. And who doesn’t love free things?
There was one article that I read that I had a visceral reaction to. It’s a good thing the plane was jam-packed (and it was very early), or I would have been yelling at my Kindle. Eric Gibson’s piece in The New Criterion titled “The Overexposed Museum” made me sad and angry at the same time. In his article, Gibson claims that photography needs to be banned from all art museums, or these institutions will fail. He sees visitor photography as a threat to the collections, and to what he calls “the art experience”. He fears that visitor loyalty will decrease because of photography, and that “creating an environment where the visitor is invited to stop, look, and take something away from the experience is the museum’s first duty to the public – not shops, restaurants, or public engagement programs.” He wraps up by questioning what museums are for, if they fail to ban photography.
My reaction to this was, as I said, visceral. Museums have a responsibility to the public to steward and preserve the art and objects they collect, yes, but they also have a responsibility to engage with the public. As times change and families bring their kids to the museums they grew up with, evolving policies and growing with technology is something that museums must do, or suffer the consequences of becoming out of touch. By evolving and allowing photography in the galleries, museums are engaging with their visitors on a new level. These photos are shared with others and can bring in a broader audience. I don’t agree with Gibson’s comment that allowing photography means a loss of control of the collections; sharing the collection is your primary objective as a museum. I would go so far as to ask, what is a museum for if it isn’t sharing its collection? Plus, if you allow staff to photograph objects behind the scenes to share them on their personal social media sites or on a museum blog, you increase awareness of just how incredible your collection is, which could lead to donations and support from the public. But a loss of control? Come on. Every website that I have ever seen that hosts photos of artwork makes note of where that art can be seen in person, even if that website is some poorly managed Geocities (oh yeah, remember Geocities?) or Tumblr blog.
On the subject of visitor loyalty, I think the exact opposite of Gibson. People aren’t taking photographs in museums so they can go home with a Van Gogh or Monet and never have to visit another museum ever again. They’re taking these photos to have a memory of their visit; yes, for some that means standing in front of every masterpiece and taking a selfie. But who are you to say how someone can interact with a piece of art? Everyone has their own way of interacting with art, and for many, that interaction includes photographing it. I can’t even say how many pictures I have on my phone of the Albert Bierstadt paintings I’ve seen at the Museum of Fine Arts, but I can say that having those pictures on my phone and my computer doesn’t mean I never go back to the Salon to look at them again. In fact, having those pictures reminds me of where they are in the museum, so when I go back, I can quickly find them. When you create a strict photo policy and then have staff roving around reinforcing it every time someone pulls out a phone, you create a hostile environment, whether you intended to or not. I would say that this would be a cause for loss of visitor loyalty more than anything else; if I felt constantly hounded at a museum, I would not visit.
Also, Mr. Gibson, museums in fact are responsible for public engagement. To you, engagement might be as simple as unlocking the doors in the morning, but for many visitors, engagement means providing meaningful, memorable ways of interacting with art, which leads to a better understanding and appreciation of the art, the artist, and the museum. Providing visitor engagement, whether it be a scavenger hunt, Twitter/Instagram hashtag, QR code, etc., ensures that more visitors have some way of appreciating the objects and the art they see around them, instead of just staring at the painting, reading the label, and maybe walking away with something. Without engagement programs and ways of offering visitors new and different methods of interacting with art, you will lose visitors for good.
The one point I will agree with Gibson on is that visitors forget that you can’t touch things in museums. I have seen this happen and it bothers me as well. Working at a natural history museum, I have had to remind visitors that just because the taxidermied animals look like they can be touched, they really shouldn’t be. I’ve caught visitors trying to climb onto the full-sized moose we have in one of the galleries, and have been shocked when having to explain just why you can’t do something like that (the answer for this is, “You don’t know what kind of chemicals are sitting on that thing, and we really don’t want you getting sick.”).
Other articles posed reasons for allowing photography that I agree with. ARTnews had an article that discussed the very real issue of guards being too busy yelling at visitors for taking photos, and missing others touching art or stealing. They also state that “as a culture, we increasingly communicate in images” – this has been true since the dawn of art history, when cave drawings were a way of communicating stories to one another. By photographing in museums we show others what we like, how we feel, what we are doing – in other words, we are communicating without using words.
My personal feelings on the matter (other than what was shared above) are simple. Museums should allow photography. I understand the issues that come with intellectual property rights and loan items/exhibitions, and to tackle these problems, I believe museums need to take a proactive approach. If you are a contemporary art museum, include in your contracts with artists the option of allowing photography of their art; if you can, perhaps have a gallery that holds only pieces that can be photographed, and a separate gallery for those that can’t be. Make it clear which galleries can and can’t be photographed, both on your maps and with well-done signage (and yes, a guard/gallery guide or two). If you’re taking in a loaned exhibition, try to work with the lending institution on photography rights, and if the lender doesn’t want to allow photography, then make that explicitly clear to your visitors. But banning photography all together can be difficult and, again, can end in a loss of visitor loyalty. When you’re constantly hounding people to put away their iPhones because they might be taking a picture, you create an unwelcoming, uncomfortable atmosphere that can turn many visitors off from coming back to your institution (or worse, from visiting any art institution ever again). In my experience, most visitors will ask if photography is allowed. I’m always happy to tell them YES! GO NUTS! (Just don’t bring a tripod/monopod in!) Recently, I visited a historic mansion that has a no-photography policy. Their reason was that the artifacts in the house were sensitive to light and could be damaged by flash. As much as I understand this, the mansion had windows that reached 30 feet high, were overabundant, and allowed in plenty of natural sunlight. This policy was clearly instituted as a way for the mansion to keep total control over what images were produced of the inside of the house. I was pretty bummed that I couldn’t take pictures inside. If you’re concerned about damage from flash photography, the simple thing to do is to ask visitors not to use flash. I do it all the time.
Where was I going with all this? Oh, right. C’mon, museums. Lighten up. Let us take photographs.
Sorry it’s been so long, guys. I’ve been swamped with schoolwork, and will probably be for the next few weeks (research paper due next Monday, then a collections plan due two weeks after that). But after December 18th I’ll have more free time, so yippie!
Anyway, the point of my brief post. Megalodon teeth.
We sell a few of these bad boys in the gift shop at HMNH. They’re pretty expensive, so they don’t move too quickly, but we get a lot of fossil collectors in that always take an interest in them.
One of the biggest criticisms I hear from visitors about our museum is our lack of tactile exhibits. Everything we have is behind glass, untouchable. And what we do have for visitors to touch is stored on carts that only the volunteers can take out, and if there are no volunteers around, there are no skulls or bones or fossils or other objects for kids to handle (but this is really a story for another time).
Now, as I said in a previous post, the gift shop is dead center of the museum. You can’t enter or exit the exhibits without coming by. So, naturally, a lot of kids that walk by tend to stop and check out what we have.
I can’t tell you how awesome it is when kids stop to check out the megalodon teeth.
This is one of those teeth. And the kids that stop by are usually mind-boggled. At first they usually ask if the teeth are real, and then how much they cost. And that’s usually when I pull one of the teeth out and let kids handle it (only if there are one or two of them, if it’s a whole group it gets a little risky). I love how interested these kids are! They’re usually taken aback by the size of the tooth (the one pictured is the size of my hand), but they always comment on how heavy it is, or that you can still see some of the serrations on the edge. They ask where it was found (coast of South Carolina) and if it’s really a real tooth or not (it is!). Sometimes they ask if c. megalodon was a real shark, and I say that yes, they existed in prehistoric oceans, and I would not want to come across one today. And then they say thank you and walk away.
But I hope they’re walking away happy, because I’m always happy to show these teeth to kids (adults, too, but c’mon, kids are awesome when they’re interested in science). My goal is to learn a little bit more about c. megalodon, so I can explain the teeth in a more scientific way than just saying AREN’T THESE AWESOME!? Maybe Brian Switek over at NatGeo’s Phenomena blogs will have some good information that I can then impart upon these kids as they come through the shop.
I used to think I was only interested in working with collections. It would mean not working directly with the public, not having to constantly answer questions – all of the things I’ve done for years in retail. But my job at HMNH has taught me that answering questions about these exhibits that I love and find genuinely interesting is actually FUN! And I always end up learning something, whether it be from a visitor, or if I go home and look something up because I didn’t have the answer for them that day. Now, I might be rethinking my whole collections management career. Could I be a public programs presenter? Maybe! I’m certainly comfortable talking to visitors about everything in the exhibit halls. Perhaps I should take some time at the Waterworks Museum to give some tours or answer more questions in the exhibit spaces and work on my public speaking there.
Thanks, kids, for reminding me of why I love museums as much as I do. I used to be in your shoes, the wide-eyed wonderer, fascinated by what was in front of me. Thank you for sharing that wonder with me, and letting me share mine.