Effective Storytelling

Although this may be an unpopular opinion, I wasn’t quite blown away at the International Spy Museum. I thought that the museum prepared beautiful, colorful, and lively exhibitions but I couldn’t help but feel like I missed a certain depth in the information. The part where I felt like the museum did the best job with effective storytelling was the James Bond exhibit, “Exquisitely Evil: Fifty Years of James Bond Villains.”

The exhibition had quite a bit of depth: long videos to help introduce the cast of characters, some great text panels, and tons of objects that were used in the actual films. I particularly enjoyed seeing the teeth that Jaws wore in several of the Bond films.

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Villain Jaws’ teeth from the Bond movies

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Dress worn by female villain, Elektra King

It was very disappointing to hear that this exhibit would not return to the new building. I understood, of course, since the museum actually didn’t own any of these objects. Perhaps that is where some of the issues lie for the Spy Museum. The museum was littered with great, short and interesting stories. However, as a visitor, I felt I missed out on the context and often yearned for collection objects to correspond to such stories.

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Story of Garbo at the Spy Museum

One such example was the story featured above in the photograph. I had never heard of a man that fabricated an entire spy network to fool the Germans. I thought that this was such an interesting and unique story, but beyond the photograph on the panel, the museum didn’t provide much else. The museum set up the scene for great stories, but didn’t actually follow through with them. It was also overwhelming to jump from story to story within the same gallery.

It was refreshing to hear from the staff that they are aware of this problem and are intending to deepen the visitor experience in the new museum building.

Telling Difficult Stories

Today, we visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I had visited about 6 years ago, but I was excited to see what I may had missed previously and any new additions. I arrived early to the museum and an exhibit caught my eye. “Daniel’s Story” was an exhibit located on the first floor of the museum. The exhibit was aimed at children, but I was eager to see how museum staff presented the Holocaust story to a young audience.

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Diary image in “Daniel’s Story” exhibition

A short film began the exhibit and then visitors walked through Daniel’s life, scene by scene. Handwritten diary entries were placed in each room and helped tell the story. Daniel’s story began with happy memories and scenes from the family kitchen, home, and community.  Then, the entries got darker as the exhibition progressed and the scenery switched to the ghetto and concentration camp.

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Daniel’s suitcase, after being forced into the ghetto

This really fit in wonderfully with our group projects since the entire exhibition was a mode of storytelling. It also did so primarily through objects and written text. Sounds were also utilized. Happy and pleasant sounds of a child helping his mother in the kitchen were at the beginning of the exhibit. Darker sounds, like terrified children and chaos, began to play after the Nazis came to power. At the end, there was an eerie silence as the hallway exit space narrowed, forcing visitors to leave single-file. It seemed symbolic as I could picture Jewish men, women, and children lining up in this manner into cattle cars, in the ghetto, and at the gas chambers.

I thought the storytelling was really appropriate for the audience and touched hard topics without being overwhelming for the children. While I really enjoyed the “Some Were Neighbors” exhibit, I didn’t think it would be a suitable place for families with young children to learn this story. I also thought that a warning by the shooting video should have been included in order to protect young minds from graphic images. Still, I was pleased that the museum had formulated a great exhibition space aimed at children.

Bastille Key at Mt. Vernon

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Bastille Key at Mt. Vernon, courtesy of Mt. Vernon Ladies Association

The Bastille Key, the cast iron key to the main prison in France, was given to Marquis de Lafayette following the Storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. Lafayette, at the time, was acting as a commander of a local protection force aimed at keeping the peace in France. He passed on the Bastille Key to George Washington in 1790. Marquis de Lafayette, of course, was quite instrumental in the American Revolution and held similar ideals as Washington and other Founding Fathers.

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Storming of the Bastille, courtesy of Encyclopedia Brittanica

This object is important to George Washington and the American Revolution in general because it represented the ability of a people to overthrow injustice. The Bastille, prior to the Storming, was seen as a symbol of aristocratic power. This changed when citizens of France attacked the Bastille, the local prison and armory. As such, it is remembered as one of the most important acts of the French Revolution. Such obvious parallels can be drawn between the Storming of the Bastille and American Revolution era events like the Boston Tea Party. The Washington family recognized the power of this object and it remained in the Mansion for several generations following Martha Washington’s death. It was only of a few furnishings to remain in their original place in the home.

Although technically a testament to French events, the Bastille key remains a symbol for the larger themes of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These themes are instrumental to American society and surely make the case for keeping the Key on display at Mt. Vernon.

NMNH: A Kid’s Playground

The National Museum of Natural History is truly a kid-centered museum. The walls are covered in bright colors and interactive displays. A large whale hangs high up over the heads of visitors while a giant polar bear looks on from the periphery. The length of a giant squid takes up nearly half of a gallery space. As we were shown around the museum, kids bustled around us shouting things like “I wanna see the shark!” and asking questions like “Do whales live in the ocean?”

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A large polar bear looks on from the Oceans Hall

What struck me at the museum was that the NMNH not only provided scientific information, but sought to inform the choices of the public. Many panels told visitors explicit steps that they could take in order to preserve our world as seen below. The photo below shows such a panel in the Oceans Gallery. This approach was even seen in the museum’s cafeteria where trash cans were labeled as “compost,” “recycle,” and “landfill.” I like museums that provide practical information in addition to more abstract and general information.

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Panel in the Oceans Hall that provided visitors with practical steps to protect our earth

In many instances, the museum used great visual resources to help drive these points home. I was drawn to an oyster exhibit found in the Oceans Hall. A brightly colored panel with great graphs told the story of the Chesapeake Bay’s dwindling oyster population. As this is the main focus of my museum, I knew most of the information. However, actual oysters were utilized in the small exhibit that helped teach a subject that many kids might not be familiar with. These approaches seemed to be successful since the museum was packed full of families with young children and school tour groups.

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Oyster exhibit in the Oceans Hall

Interpretation of Slavery at Mt. Vernon

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“Lives Bound Together” exhibition at Mt. Vernon

I was really impressed today regarding Mt. Vernon’s interpretation of slavery. I have never been to this museum, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Some historic sites, especially those that glorify Founding Fathers, often shy away from difficult topics like slavery. I was pleasantly surprised to see the “Lives Bound Together” exhibition. Slavery wasn’t just delegated to a small area in an exhibition, but was the main focus of the entire (large) exhibition.

I enjoyed listening to the Curator as she described the thought process behind the exhibition and how certain objects were selected. I particularly felt it was interesting that many of the same objects in the room with the Washington’s dining table were re-purposed from previous permanent exhibitions, but were interpreted differently under the framework of slavery. I also appreciated the choice to humanize the enslaved people that lived at Mt. Vernon. The choice to display their names on the front door, on a banner throughout the exhibit, and with several silhouettes brought slavery out of an abstract concept.

But beyond Mt. Vernon’s interpretation of slavery in the form of exhibitions, I thought they were particularly successful in utilizing character interpreters. The man who represented Christopher Sheels seemed to have such an eloquent way of describing how he interacts with kids and adults to help them better understand how enslaved people lived on the estate. He said that in order to get his message across he needed to tell the truth, with humility, and with grace. It seemed like a great strategy to utilize, even with tough visitors that could be emotional or downright combative.

Overall, I was not expecting Mt. Vernon to have such a handle on the interpretation of slavery. I was pleased to hear that the narrative of slavery was woven into every tour, even those that didn’t specifically focus on the activities of enslaved people. Staff said that they have come a long way in terms of how they discuss slavery and still have room for improvement. From what I can see, Mt. Vernon seems to be on the right track.

Accessibility at NMAH & NGA

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Spark! Lab at the National Museum of American History

My favorite part of today was hearing about the accessibility initiatives at NMAH. I’ve taken the Accessibility course in the program, so this is a topic that really appeals to me. I was fascinated to hear that the Smithsonian’s Accessibility Program only employs two people. In a large-scale institution, I would have expected a larger department that had more authority and power to enforce accessibility measures. However, I was pleasantly surprised to hear about the Spark! Lab initiative. As I have been a volunteer coordinator in the past, I was blown away to hear that volunteers were on-board with the project. Producing new accessibility materials and tweaking program offerings often results in conflict. Luckily, Spark! Lab didn’t seem to deal with any of these setbacks.

I also thought it was great to hear about the internship opportunities for those with cognitive or physical disabilities. I didn’t know that the Smithsonian offered this breadth of opportunities. Even better, these internships seem to be focused on academic areas and not just facilities management. It was refreshing hearing from people that were so passionate about ensuring that all who enter the museum can feel welcome and can access the information.

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Painters at the National Gallery of Art

I assumed that the experience I had yesterday at Hillwood would be quite similar to the National Gallery Art as both institutions are quite conservative. However, the National Gallery of Art actually exceeded my expectations. The museum was very open to the public. It was great actually seeing multiple painters in galleries, working away. There were less barriers and no ropes to speak of. Since the NGA had a significant amount of security staff, it allowed them to do away with intrusive barrier methods.

Overall, it what great hearing about accessibility programs and actually feeling like the museum was accessible to its visitors. As mentioned at the NMAH, our generation will most likely continue to embrace these initiatives and ensure that all visitors feel welcome.

Text Labels: Necessary?

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The cutest panda there ever was!

Today we began at the Smithsonian National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute. Although I’m pretty local to DC, I actually have never been to the Zoo before! Prior to visiting, I was unsure about the Zoo’s interpretation methods. Although the Zoo does provide interpretation panels and texts, the staff noted that not all visitors utilize this tool. When visiting, I was distracted by the animals, especially the pandas. It seemed like visitors would have a similar experience.

However, what I found to be most useful was our group’s interaction with one of the Giant Panda keepers. I am sure that the keeper provided details that were mentioned in the text panels throughout the Panda House. However, it was easier to pay attention to the information while still keeping an eye on the pandas. During our session with Zoo staff, we were asked how the Zoo could best present information and stories to visitors. Our group suggested a few different approaches: through the use of volunteers, the potential development of apps, or multimedia approaches. In my mind, the use of volunteers or keepers was the most effective. Humans can’t resist cuddly animals. They are more willing to listen to information from staff or volunteers since they can view the animals at the same time.

I’m definitely a “text heavy” person, so this was a new experience for me. As the staff members put it, working in a zoo presents a unique set of challenges. It seems unsurprising that different interpretation methods would work better in a zoo setting.

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Entrance to the Hillwood Museum Mansion

At Hillwood Museum, I was also drawn to their interpretation methods. The museum attempts to interpret the home of Marjorie Merriweather Post. As is the case for many historic homes, labeling is scarce in the mansion. Other interpretation tools, including an audio guide and a paper guide, were provided to us. As such, I didn’t feel that these tools were effective or allowed me to get an interesting grasp on Marjorie or the history of the home. Walking through the home seemed impersonal, especially amongst the ropped-off rooms.

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Japanese-style Gardens at Hillwood Museum

Instead, I felt more comfortable outside of the home. I really enjoyed the gardens, the pet cemetery, and the Japanese fountains. I thought that the grounds and the Dacha exhibit were more accessible to visitors and provided much-needed interpretation. Unlike the Zoo, I didn’t have the opportunity to listen to a staff member provide information.

At the end of the day, I thought that the Zoo could get away with less text interpretation since the volunteers and staff were so effective. At Hillwood, I would recommend investing in some sort of text interpretive panels or consider making more rooms in the mansion accessible.