musings from the new england museum association

SI Astrophysical Observatory's Black Holes exhibition, on view at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord, NH

SI Astrophysical Observatory's Black Holes exhibition, on view at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord, NH

One of the most interesting questions I heard asked at the New England Museum Association conference last week was, what’s the new non-profit normal?   There was a sense that both retrenching and rethinking are in order, but that steering museums through these turbulent times will produce changes that will last far beyond the economic crisis and our eventual recovery.

The new director of Affliate Plimoth Plantation (Plymouth, MA), offered one such road map.  It’s hyper-attentive visitor experience, and a zero tolerance for unsatisfactory comments.  One of the results of recent visitor surveys at Plimoth revealed that 93% of their visitors report a very satisfactory experience.  Pretty good right?!  Except for director Ellie Donovan, a missionary for high-quality visitor experience in every regard.  She recognizes that the other 7% represent 25,000 people who are not shopping in the store for things to remember a bad experience, and are not saying nice things to their friends.  In short, that 7% represent thousands of dollars of potentially lost revenue, that no museum or historical site can stand to lose.  A powerful argument.     

The keynote speaker at NEMA made a nuanced plea for new non-profit normal too, that is, how museums need to step up to their role as builders of social capital in a community.  Social capital is a metric, measured by community and state by such statistics as the number of active voters, volunteerism, crime rates, even TV-watching rates (a negative indicator).  Unsurprisingly, his research has shown that, the higher the social capital, the higher are other rates of happiness indicators – education achievement, lower incarceration rates, etc.  Lewis Feldstein, President of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, challenged all the museum professionals present to ask themselves how their organizations are building social capital.  Do new immigrants come to your museum to learn about the community’s history or cultural activity?  Do local civic groups call you to use your facilities for meetings?  Is your staff serving on community boards, active and visible members of civic life in your city?  All (and more) are important questions for establishing the relevancy of museums to the contexts of their communities.

But not all the discussions at the conference were that deep and soul-searching.  I was lucky to see Black Holes: Space Warps and Time Twists, an exhibition organized by the Smithsonian’s Astrophysical Observatory, at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord, NH.  (Ok, how many knew that Christa McAuliffe was a high school social studies teacher from Concord, NH High School?  Or that the quote, “I touch the future, I teach,” was hers?!)  It was a wonderfully interactive exhibit with a variety of media stations that allow the visitor to weigh black holes and dive into them, among other activities.    And I met the young enthusiastic safari-clad staff of scvngr – a do-it-yourself interface template for creating location-based, high-tech, mobile games.  So very fun.

Overall, a very pleasant, thought-provoking week in New England.  How about you – what’s the chatter at your regional association or museum?

Coming up in Affiliateland

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SITES' exhibition on White House gardens, opening in Illinois.

What’s going on at Affiliates in November?

MARYLAND:  Staff of the B & O Railroad Museum in Baltimore receive training with educators from the Smithsonian’s Early Enrichment Center, 11.5.

The Reginald F. Lewis Museum sponsors a “Get on the Bus” tour from D.C. to Baltimore,  featuring SITES’ project director Marquette Folley,  11.7.

ILLINOIS:  The  Jeweled Objects of Desire exhibition featuring 43 objects from the gem and minerals collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History opens at the Lizzadro Museum of Lapidary Art in Elmhurst, 11.7.

The Dixon Historic Center opens SITES’ The White House Garden exhibition in Dixon, 11.14.

NEW HAMPSHIRE:  Outreach Manager Jennifer Brundage will be attending the New England Museum Association conference in Nashua, 11.11-14.

Rubin Museum finds rare treasures in Smithsonian library

Thanks to the Rubin Museum of Art’s curatorial assistant Tracey Friedman for this guest post.  Here, Tracey explains what happened when she came to Washington to research medieval cosmology in the Smithsonian’s Dibner Library for their upcoming exhibit, Visions of the Cosmos.    

Rubin Museum curatorial assistant Tracey Friedman researches medieval cosmology at Smithsonian Library.

Rubin Museum curatorial assistant Tracey Friedman researches medieval cosmology at the Smithsonian's Dibner Library.

We started with the questions:  How did we come to be? What is beyond the earth? How did the universe begin? How has man conceived of his place in the universe throughout history? The human condition is marked by an awareness of a mortal self and a curiosity about the surrounding world, giving rise to certain questions that have been answered by myths, philosophies, and mathematics.  The Rubin Museum of Art’s (RMA) upcoming exhibition, Visions of the Cosmos: From the Milky Ocean to an Evolving Universe, will explore the different systems, both religious and scientific, that have developed in Eastern and Western cultures to explain man’s relationship to the universe.

 As the curatorial assistant for this exhibition, I was charged with providing the research for the Western portion of the show. I had help from a greatly accomplished astrophysicist in putting together a preliminary list of potential objects, but it wasn’t nearly enough to narrate the Western tale of the cosmos.

We turned to the Smithsonian.  As a new Affiliate, we relied on the help of our liaison, Jennifer, to set up the appropriate avenues to research a new subject area. She believed the best outlet to meet our needs was the Dibner Library. I was a bit skeptical because I had never heard of this library and felt the allure of other more well-known Smithsonian museums and research centers. Jennifer sent me a list of relevant books held by the Dibner, available from their online catalog (another great resource for Affiliates). I had a list of remarkable pieces to start with, many of which were housed at the Dibner itself, inside the National Museum of American History. I decided that I needed to see these pieces for myself and find the images that would illustrate our story.

Within two weeks I had an appointment and traveled the four-and-a-half hours to Washington D.C. When I arrived, the staff at the Dibner Library had all of the books I requested, and more, set out for me. To my pleasant surprise, the librarians took my topic and ran with it. I was presented with numerous books dealing with an assortment of corresponding themes that they had extracted from my original list. I was impressed by the effort that had been put into this scholarly search, and thankfully, one of the librarians explained their research strategies and rationale with me upon my arrival. I was then led into the cozy, dimly-lit reading room and sat down with my pile of books for the rest of the day. Each time I reached the maximum limit of books allowed in the room, the pile would rotate out for an equally large stack. I was thumbing through each of the books, making notes and marking pages of interest. Instead of drawing my typical makeshift renderings of the images, the librarian made a copy of the pages I selected. I was elated.

I am so pleased with the final selection of books that we are borrowing from the Dibner for our show. The section of the show I researched will trace how Western medieval anthropocentric cosmology, which envisioned humans at the center of a static universe, was replaced in the Renaissance by a heliocentric universe, giving rise to our present, evolving astrophysical worldview. Among the 6 rare books we borrowed from the Smithsonian are texts ranging from the 10th – 17th centuries, representing great scientists and philosophers such as Galileo, Oronce Finé, and Joannes de Sacro Bosco.

My experience made it clear that my institution’s new affiliation with the Smithsonian will be a great tool for us.   I hope that my experience inspires other Affiliates to create similar partnerships and take advantage of smaller Smithsonian entities like the Dibner Library.

To read more stories about discoveries and collections at the Smithsonian’s network of 20 libraries, check out their blog and website.

the sky’s the limit at NASM

What do an object loan coordinator, digitized posters, a public observatory and a virtual conference have in common? All are opening the collections and resources of the National Air and Space Museum in new and exciting ways!

Hunter Hollins,

Hunter Hollins, loan coordinator, space history

New Loan Coordinator: Hunter Hollins

Hunter joined the Space History Division of the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) in May of this year.  With almost 20 years of experience working with museums to manage exhibitions of art and artifacts of cultural heritage, Hunter is excited to help Affiliates get the most from their relationship with the NASM. He’s currently working with the Challenger Space Center, a Smithsonian Affiliate in Peoria, Arizona, on a loan of artifacts related to life in space. There’s some surprising items on the list- including “ChapStick” (to ensure the astronauts’ comfort) and fishing line and hooks, in case they had too much time floating in the Pacific Ocean when they returned!

Hunter works closely with borrowers to maintain our national treasures while on exhibit so they can be enjoyed and studied by generations to come.

NASM’s “Fly Now!” Poster Collection online

At the end of this summer, staff at NASM achieved a milestone: they had photographed, scanned and catalogued most of the museum’s collection of 1,300 posters.  The posters, which date from 1827 and include contemporary examples, are available for the first time online.  View them here.

Amelia Brakeman Kile, an intern who worked on the project, said that their efforts will allow scholars to “contribute to knowledge, study and discussion of this valuable resource.”  Read more in her blog post.

NASM's telescope, on loan from Harvard

NASM's telescope, on loan from Harvard

Harvard on the Mall: NASM Opens a Public Observatory
400 years ago, Galileo made the first recorded astronomical observations with a telescope. To commemorate his achievement, NASM opened a public observatory on the National Mall. The observatory features a 16 inch, 3,000 pound telescope on loan from the Harvard College Observatory. During daylight hours, visitors can view the moon, bright stars and planets, and with a special filter, the sun. And, for the next three months, visitors can see the Smithsonian Dibner Library’s first edition of Galileo’s “Sidereus Nuncius” after they view the heavens.

Apollo Space Program Virtual Conference for Educators

Join experts from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum for the Apollo Space Program Virtual Conference, a FREE one-day online conference on Tuesday, November 10. Forty years ago the Apollo Space Program met President Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the moon, one of the most significant achievements of the 20th Century. Join experts as they present the challenges of the Apollo Program and examine the remarkable technologies that made the moon landings possible.  Click here for session details and registration .

B & O Railroad Museum celebrates 10th Anniversary as Smithsonian Affiliate

The B&O Railroad Museum (Baltimore, Maryland) celebrated the 10th anniversary of their association with the Smithsonian on October 15, 2009.  The B&O was both the first museum in Maryland and the first railroad history museum to formally affiliate with the Smithsonian when it joined the program on April 16, 1999.

Director Courtney Wilson and Affiliations staff Jennifer Brundage in front of the fireless locomotive.

Director Courtney Wilson and Affiliations staff member Jennifer Brundage in front of the fireless locomotive.

A look back at the collaboration between the Smithsonian and the B&O shows that they have been an exceptional Affiliate from the beginning, taking full advantage of sharing the Smithsonian’s resources. Shortly after they became an Affiliate, the B & O secured the loan of the Stourbridge Lion, the first locomotive to operate in the United States or anywhere in the Western Hemisphere.

Not long after, they became the new home of over 50 locomotive and railroad car models documenting significant advancements in railroad technology.  Originally housed in the Smithsonian’s Railroad Hall at the National Museum of American History [NMAH], these artifacts are considered by many to be the finest examples of railroad scale models ever produced.

Most recently, during the 10th anniversary celebration, the 1938 PEPCO fireless locomotive was unveiled. The locomotive was recently donated to the B&O from NMAH and will be on public display at B&O for the first time in 30 years.

While the B&O has been successful in securing many exceptional Smithsonian loans, their partnership has never been limited to loans alone.  Over the years, the B&O has been a consistent participant in Smithsonian Magazine’s annual Museum Day, opening their doors to visitors for free. They share information about their tours and teacher programs with over 2500 local teachers every year at Smithsonian Teacher’s Night.

They’ve even been a frontrunner in securing advertorial space in Smithsonian Magazine to highlight their restoration projects. They are also the first Affiliate to consult with the Smithsonian’s experts on early childhood education to carve out education spaces in the galleries for the B&O’s youngest visitors.

We are extremely proud and excited to have the B&O Railroad museum as one of our outstanding Affiliates.  Congratulations to the B&O and we look forward to many more years of successful collaborations!

In 2010, almost 30 Affiliates will be celebrating their 10th anniversaries as a partner of the Smithsonian.  Is your organization one of them?  If so, drop us a line at affiliates@si.edu so we can start planning your celebration!

kudos, Affiliates!

In these tough economic times, it’s nice to see some bright spots.

Here’s our congratulations roundup for November 2009.

The Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District (Newark, NJ) received $300,000 from the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities for job training in environmentally-friendly construction.

 

The National World War II Museum (New Orleans, LA) received $25 million from the Department of Defense to expand the museum and construct the United States Freedom Pavilion, an expansion that will include an exhibit focused on the American home front during the war.

 

Museum of the Rockies (Bozeman, MT) accepted a donation from Eleanor “Ellie” Hamilton Povah of more than 1,200 items from her family’s collection on Yellowstone history and gave a gift of $250,000 over five years to the museum, which will be used to match federal funds and cover the costs of the collection’s care, storage, cataloguing and preservation.

 

The Museum of Science and History (Jacksonville, FL) was awarded $304,737 through the Cultural Service Grant Program. The program is funded through the city and administered by the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville.

 

Michigan State University Museum  (East Lansing, MI) has been awarded $319,284 from IMLS to support the “Oral History in the Digital Age” project. Michigan State University Museum, will partner with the Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center, the American Folklore Society, and the Oral History Association to recommend standards and best practices for digital oral history.

Congratulations and good luck to the National World War II Museum (New Orleans, LA) on their $60 million expansion and grand opening, November 6-8.