Conference ideas

Affiliations staff have the privilege of attending regional museum conferences throughout the year, which help to keep us in touch with potential issues facing affiliates.  This year, affiliations staff have attended at least six regional conferences across the nation.  

As expected, the conferences offered tons of ideas and stimulated the energy to try them!  We’ll be sharing those ideas in preparation for the Affiliations conference June 3-5, 2007.  In the meantime, I thought I’d share a few of the most striking ideas I heard.

The question that stays with me still from my conference-attending this year was, how can museums become more like libraries, which are, more and more, taking on the role as the true civic centers of our time?

This is not an abstract concept – in my travels last year from Grand Lake, Colorado to New Milford, Connecticut, “LIBRARY” meant the same thing, almost like a brand.  Seek out the library in whatever town you’re in, and you already know that you can check email with free internet access;  a bulletin board will announce community events that might be of interest;  you can work on a report or budget if necessary at one of the computers, even if it’s old;  you can check out headlines through local and major papers;  you can get a flavor of the local community through the exhibitions or children’s work on view;  and most importantly, if you just want quiet to prepare or unwind, there’s no better place – a Starbucks can’t even provide that.  And the other great thing about libraries – they are centrally located and there are an appropriate number of them; competition among them seems irrelevant. 

Of course museums have different missions, and different contraints, from libraries.  But in general, libraries are easy to find, always free and reliable, and accessible and welcoming to all ages, races and classes.  Imagine if we could describe the nation’s museums in similar terms?!

I kept thinking about this at other conferences, and attended meetings on ‘mainstreaming’ and ‘contemporary anthropology’ which posed great ideas – let’s make gift cards for our museums available at the local Target or grocery store.  Let’s stop dictating what a “family” membership entails, when 75% of American families are nontraditional.  Let’s use data on generational values to influence programming, building in community service to our family events. 

So let’s hear it – what ideas did you garner from conferences this year?  What would you like to see at the Affiliations conference?!

Smithsonian Teachers Night logo

Smithsonian Teachers’ Night

si_teachers_night_2006_sm.gif    Thanks to our local affiliates who made the Affiliations table at Smithsonian Teachers’ Night such a smashing success!!  Over 1600 teachers attended Friday night’s event (October 20), and Affiliations staff could hardly keep up with their zeal for materials!

We had a nice sampling of American history resources – a lesson plan website on the French and Indian War from the Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center;  history labs information from the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar; information on the new education center and programs at George Washington’s Mount Vernon; and a wealth of African American history resources from the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture

We also had a nice smattering of science, with field trip information from the Virginia Museum of Natural History and school tours and programs from the National Museum of Dentistry.

While the overwhelming majority of teachers were from DC, Maryland and Virginia, we met a principal from California that we could send to the Blackhawk Museum, and a teacher from southern Colorado that we encouraged to visit the Pinhead Institute

Mental note for next time – any giveaway (in this case, apple-shaped stress balls from the Reginald Lewis Museum) will go faster than any other thing on the table, so bring twice as many as you think you’ll need!

Judging exhibitions

Every quarter, educators from across the Smitsonian meet for an “exchange” of ideas around a common topic of interest. Last week I attended my first educators’ exchange, where we deconstructed the National Museum of Natural History’s Mammal Hall. We were trying out the theories of Beverly Serrell, whose new book, Judging Exhibitions: A Framework for Assessing Excellence provided parameters, criteria, and a scoring system.

NMNH's Mammal Hall Tiger in NMNH's Mammal Hall While this may sound a little formulaic (an exhibition is not an algebra problem after all), in practice of course, it is not – we discovered wildly varied responses to the same stimuli. Some of my collegues came away knowing more about the basics of being a mammal than they ever had, while others found the display somewhat too textbook-like. And so on.

It was worthwhile and enjoyable to me though, to subject an exhibition to these questions, even if we can’t agree on the results. I was forced to confront my “meaning of life” -type questions of why I go to museums in the first place, and what do I expect from them? What are my core values in spending my time this way? Ok, Museum 101. But aren’t these questions worth re-asking ourselves, and our exhibition teams, from time to time?

I do want an exhibition to challenge my thinking. Going with very simple ideas is ok, unless they are simple to a fault. I find successful interactives to be those that redirect my focus back to critical observation of objects to illuminate a point (that I could otherwise read in a book.) Low-tech (crawling under a tree trunk to see how squirrels live) is as, if not more, effective than computers and video. No, you can’t please every audience demographic. But little gestures to those outside the core target audience are significant and not difficult. Do you agree or are your values different?

My favorite comment was about majesty. To hear Smithsonian scientists talk about their work is to hear inspiration; they are professionals who truly love what they do. Translating passion into physical space is a lofty goal for which any exhibition should strive. That the Hall of Mammals achieved a level of majesty, a passionate spectacular majesty, is something on which we all could agree.

Creative marketing

I’ve come across two examples recently of outside-the-box marketing (in my opinion!) :

 Cultural and Political Icons hand out breakfast to taxi drivers  (double click images to see them larger)

Who better (literally) to drive tourists and visitors to your Museum than your city’s taxi drivers?  The Smithsonian’s American Art and Portrait Gallery recently staged an event for Washington’s cabbies – Abe Lincoln, Marilyn Monroe and other icons represented in the Museums’ collection gave out free doughnuts, branded coffee mugs, and museum information to all the cabs that drove by one morning last week.  (Read more about the event on SAAM’s blog, Eye Level).
Not only might cab drivers better remember the Museum’s hours and location, they will also have a fun story to tell every passenger that wants to go there.

  Pittsburgh airport  If you’ve ever been through Pittsburgh’s airport, it’s likely you passed this pair;  everyone does on their way to baggage claim.  Who are they?  A young, 20-something George Washington, and Steeler football player Franco Harris.  The two icons of Pittsburgh history are accompanied by signage inviting arriving passengers to “relive a few classic battles” – when George Washington stormed into the area in what was to become the French and Indian War;  and Harris’ Immaculate Reception that won the Steelers’ 1972 playoff game against the Oakland Raiders.  It’s a curiosity that’s hard to avoid, and one that simultaneously invites you to experience more interesting stories at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, a Smithsonian affiliate.

These examples seem both fun and effective, and I bet there are many many more out there.  What’s yours?!  Let us know so we can share. 

Do you have an experience design strategy?

In conjunction with its renovation, the American History Museum has sponsored a staff development series, bringing leading consultants, authors and thinkers to SI to challenge our paradigms about museum-going and our attitudes toward an experience design strategy.

A few months ago, we heard from David Norton of Stone Mantel (, presenting research from the influential book, Experience Economy: Work is Theater and Every Business a Stage. For me, the most memorable point in that lecture was his asking the audience to reconsider ‘in-between’ places –  how hallways, lobbies, cafeteria lines, elevators and bathrooms play, in many ways, as significant a role for meaningful experience as the galleries themselves.  Where people gather, orient, chat and debate is as important a design concern as the exhibitions they came to see.

This week, SI staff were treated to a lecture by Paco Underhill, CEO and President of Envirosell, Inc. ( and author of Call of the Mall  and Why We Buy

He started with an acute observation – museum people assume that audiences know who we are and how to use us.  But the idea of a museum was conceived over 100 years ago with a demographic in mind that largely, doesn’t exist anymore.  In his words, “the world is changing faster than you are.”

He quoted statistics of which many are familiar :
– Less than 25% of American families look like the Cleaver household, with married parents & 2   kids 
– Audiences’ visual acuity is highly sharpened because of rapid technology changes
– Time is accelerated.  People expect experiences to fit into a framework of accomplishment
– We are a nation of immigrants
– A museum’s competition ranges from Animal Planet to Playstation 2 to ESPN Zone

With this in mind, he proceeded to ask poignant questions to probe these issues:
– What does family membership mean?  Does that include grandma, cousins, the nanny?
– What are you doing for the divorced dad who has his kids only on weekends?
– Can a visitor find lunch at your museum for different price points – $7, $12, $18 ?  to accommodate both a family, or a couple on vacation?
– How does the Apple store accomplish $200 impulse buys on a regular basis?
– Did you know that the ubiquitous suggests taking a first date to a museum? How are you reaching this audience?
– Can you rate museums in the same way that you do films?
– Can a visitor learn something new at your museum, AND get a margarita?  Is that an appropriate question to ask? 
– The newest tourists are those from emerging markets like Russia and China.  How well can you service them?

These questions and issues are not new.  but being confronted with them again in such a pointed way reminded me of their relevance.  His last challenge?

“If it isn’t fun, you shouldn’t be here.  If you can’t make it fun, then why will your audience come back?” 

Tourism and Dining – end of the summer pleasures at Cooper-Hewitt

I had the pleasure of experiencing two lovely exhibitions at Cooper-Hewitt this weekend.  They are closing soon, so if you find yourself in NYC before the end of October 2006, treat yourself and do not miss them!  (

Yellowstone, Thomas Moran  It might surprise you to know that Cooper-Hewitt has the largest collection of works by Frederic Church and Winslow Homer, in the world.  The current exhibition Frederic Church, Winslow Homer, and Thomas Moran: Tourism and the American Landscape shows them off beautifully.  The show transports the visitor to Niagara Falls, Yellowstone, the Adirondacks, Acadia, the Grand Canyon, and beyond, to illustrate how the influential works of these 19th century artists embedded images of iconic American landscapes into our national collective consciousness.  Their sketches, drawings and paintings inspired decorative arts as well, that brought these landscapes home to the armchair traveler, including stereoviewer cards, wallpaper, games and tableware, all of which are on view.  Their images even influenced public policy, which, together with photographs from land surveyors of the time, spurred Congress to set aside large tracts of land for public use.

   Who would guess that in the early 20th century, potato chips would be served with this beautiful silver spoon from Tiffany’s?!  You’ll find this and a plethora of additional interesting facts about gastronomy through the ages in Feeding Desire: Design and the Tools of the Table, 1500–2005.  This delicious exhibition begins with the chronologies of the fork, knife and spoon, in which the visitor learns, for example, that the fork suffered discrimination because of its association with the devil, and was not adopted into regular table use until the late 18th century.  In the 16-17th centuries, people traveled with their own cutlery;  it became proper etiquette to point the sharp edge of one’s knife toward the user to avoid offense or confusion about the implement’s role as weapon or eating utensil… a tradition which continues today!  The exhibition shows off Cooper-Hewitt’s impressive collection of cutlery, including train and airplane tableware, ergonomic and colorful utensils, and those carved from wood, ivory and metal.  Examples cover the gamut of decoration and style, from naturalistic to ritualistic, and from 16th century Europe to 21st century Chicago.

But by far my favorite part of the exhibition was devoted to specialty tools.  Here one learns that, for example, the first written American recipe for ice cream is in Thomas Jefferson’s hand, and that ice cream used to be served via hatchet or saw, and always eaten with a fork.  19th century Americans debated whether olives, a must at fashionable parties, were better served with a fork or spoon;  Tiffany’s responded by fashioning an elegant compromise, opposing the fork and spoon on either end of a silver rod.  Asparagus tongs, spaghetti twirlers, clawed ice tongs… all flourished with possibility.  In a recent 2004 innovation, Chicago chef Homaro Cantu made corkscrew utensils, designed to hold fresh herbs to stimulate diners’ olfactory glands while they ate.  Test your knowledge of cutlery with the Museum’s online quiz.

Are you hungry yet?!