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

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.

Technology & Objects

The main thread I found today during our visits to the National Air & Space Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian was how technology can affect visitors’ experiences with objects.

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At the Air & Space Museum, I thought this was illustrated through the new interactive “tech” wall in the main lobby. Prior to the demonstration of the technology, I thought the wall was purely decorative. When the staff member began interacting with the wall, I saw just how great of a tool it was. It allowed visitors to “favorite” objects and send them to their phones via the Go Flight app. It also pointed out additional information and even provided a location within the museum (which was my favorite part of the wall).

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Tech wall provides the location of an object, “First Man-made object Recovered from Orbit.”

With that being said, the displays around the wall did nothing to aid the visitors. Banners promoted the Go Flight app, but none of the banners mentioned how the tech wall could be utilized! I would have never known about the tool had the staff member shown us how it worked. I believe better signage regarding the tech wall was necessary to ensure that visitors took advantage of the staff’s hard work. In this case, the technology could better serve visitors and allow them more chances to interact with objects. But it seemed like that wasn’t actually the case. Then, we traveled over to the National Museum of the American Indian in order to learn about their new interactive initiatives.

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Rotunda of the National Museum of the American Indian

Although I didn’t take any photos of the Indian Removal interactive in the “Nation to Nation” exhibition, this was my favorite part of the day. The interactive not only attempted to provide factual information about the Indian Removal, but allowed visitors to feel some of the same emotions the Native Americans experienced while this process was ongoing. The interactive matched choices of the user to real-life scenarios. I thought that their design choice to use “amped-up” stick figures was very powerful and appropriate. It allowed visitors to look past facial features or cultural stereotypes and instead learn about the treaty process. It seemed that the interactive was very compelling and successful in providing an interactive way for visitors to view museum collection objects and grasp large and difficult concepts. For me, the National Museum of the American Indian’s use of technology was more successful than the National Air and Space Museum’s.

Intertwining Objects

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Today, we went to the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM)/ National Portrait Gallery (NPG) and also were able to tour the Lunder Conservation Center. Although I have visited this museum before, I was excited to see the space again. I had forgotten how vibrant the colors were and the variety of the collection.

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“Jane Adams,” National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Location: S322

My favorite thing today was the story-telling activity. I chose the Julia Adams (1860-1935) portrait pictured above. I didn’t know who Julia Adams was prior to reading the panel. However, what struck me about the painting was her expression. She seems to be very focused and firm. Instead of looking straight ahead at the viewer, she keeps her gaze to the side and fixed on the road ahead. I also got the sense that she seemed somewhat tired. After reading the panel’s information, I came to the conclusion that it might have been done intentionally. Adams was one of the first women to receive a college degree. In the nineteenth-century, this certainly would have been quite a feat. No doubt, she overcame many challenges in order to meet her goals.

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“Eudora Alice Welty,” National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Location: S342

My partner chose the portrait of Eudora Welty (1909-2001), a woman from Mississippi who was an accomplished author and Pulitzer prize winner. Together, we combined the stories of these two collection objects to create an entirely new story. Surprisingly, it wasn’t much of a stretch to intertwine these two portraits.

We presented a mother and daughter story. Jane Adams, acted as the mother to Eudora Welty. From the portrait and object label, we concluded that Adams would be eager to reminisce her struggles and experiences to her daughter during her last moments on earth. As a writer, we believed that Welty would be eager to write down her mothers’ words and later become inspired by them.

Although Adams lived in Illinois and Welty in Mississippi, the story seemed very plausible. The women were very similar; they were trailblazers and a great example of female determination. Both worked hard to complete great accomplishments. I was glad for this exercise today because I realized just how powerful museum objects are. Museum objects can show common struggles and experiences. It was a great warm up for our group project, where we will need to intertwine three museum objects to tell a greater American story.