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.

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.

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.