What is trade literature anyway?

Funny you should ask!  The Smithsonian Libraries have one of the most outstanding collections of trade literature in the United States.  Affiliations staff were honored recently to get an up-close, personal view of some samples that were presented by three of the collection’s experts.

Playground equipment cover  What is it?  Trade literature is mass produced by manufacturers to promote and explain their products to wholesalers and retailers.  The Smithsonian’s collection numbers at least 400,000 pieces (it’s still being catalogued!), with the bulk of the collection dating from 1880-1950.  Because this genre of books, pamphlets, brochures, et al, were meant to be discarded (some manufacturers even encouraged an annual purge), the ephemera is quite rare. 

And beautiful.  And surprising.  And revelatory.  The Smithsonian’s seed catalogs feature wildly colorful botanical illustrations.  Some appliance catalogs from the 1950s explain “what women really want,” an illustrative glimpse into social mores of the period.  Floor and wallcovering sample books reveal startlingly modern designs linking them to Art Deco and Bauhaus sensibilities.  World War II era catalogs exemplify how American manufacturers contributed to the war mobilization effort.  Catalogs of turn-of-the-century fountains harken back to Renaissance drawings in their precision. 

Why do we collect this?  Mostly because Smithsonian curators use these to decipher the uses, specifications, and contexts (social/political/economic, among others) of the artifacts in our collection.  It comes in handy for other folks as well;  for example, the National Park Service regularly consults our collection when restoring its historic structures.   Lawyers use it frequently for patent cases.

How can Affiliates use these?  In many ways as it turns out! 
1) Research.  Do you have a 19th century carriage, and want to know more about it?  It’s likely we have the manual that accompanied its distribution.  Same with cameras, automobiles, sewing machines, silos, bicycles, wagons, scientific equipment, on and on and on! 
2) Images.  The wonderful Libraries staff can scan images and send you a high resolution .tif file.  With the proper paperwork, these could serve as graphics in your exhibition or in interpretative & education materials.
3) Loans.  Although rare and fragile, some of the specimens can travel and be exhibited.

I encourage you to explore this fascinating collection further, and as always, never hesitate to ask us questions about it!

Office of exhibits central old logo

clip_image002.jpg

Check out one of the Smithsonian’s newest blogs, from the Office of Exhibits Central (OEC).  OEC is a dynamic unit that produces exhibits and exhibition services for Smithsonian museums, SITES, and others, like the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum, our affiliate in Arizona.
rotunda_elephant_sm_feather.jpg (a well-known example of OEC’s work on the Mall)

The blog is a fun glimpse into the workings of OEC.  You’ll see examples of their cool technology (like a skull being made on their CNC machine), projects they’re working on (like SITES’ Jim Henson’s Fantastic World) and exhibitions in development (such as Natural History’s Going to Sea, which will coincide with the opening of their new Ocean Hall.)

The best part is experiencing the process from their perspective – all the behind-the-scenes challenges and creative solutions that our colleagues confront on a daily basis (which no doubt are the same issues that Affiliate staffs deal with as well.)  It’s a good reminder to consider all that goes into the wonderful exhibits we enjoy in our museums every day… imagine if the public knew!?!

student activity at S.E.R.C.

SERC

 SERC home  This week, several Affiliations staff treated ourselves to a field trip, and visited our colleagues at the Smithsonian’s Environmental Research Center.  Located on 3,000 acres on the Chesapeake Bay (SERC map), SERC is a leading research unit with 16 laboratories devoted to studying things like marine biology & ecology, among other topics.  SERC is the national center for research on biological invasions in marine ecosystems;  hosts the world’s largest research team analyzing mangrove forests; and is a national leader in the analysis of wetlands.  Very impressive.

We met with SERC’s Director of Education, Mark Haddon.   Mark’s team reaches millions of kids a year through their extensive videoconferencing program, electronic field trips and mobile ecology lab.  They also teach  through guided hikes and canoe trips, lectures and “study stations” on their dock and shoreline, for interactive workshops on habitat, water quality and more.  Mark has very cool educational tools at his disposal too, from big rubber wading suits and nets to troll for crabs to aquariums and microscopes to a large-capacity boat on which he can take students into the bay for samples.  He’s even working on getting hand-held data-collecting probes. 

If any kind of marine biology or ecology is part of your mission, check out SERC.  They are ripe and eager to collaborate on everything from electronic lessons for students to teacher training to advice on best practices.    

Mark suggested we continue our discussion next time during a canoe trip around the property.  Any affiliates want to join us?!

seiningfig3.jpg SERCDockArial.jpg edu_programs_we_muddy.jpg  

How do you define educational success?

On Tuesday, several Smithsonian educators, and myself, attended a session of the Museum Education Roundtable.  (mer-online.org/)  The discussion focused on defining educational success in museums, and how differing educational approaches not only help to determine results, but differing definitions of success as well.

The speaker was Margaret Lindauer, faculty member of Virginia Commonwealth University, and an experienced evaluator, having assessed the educational impact of exhibits at the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of American History, among others.  She outlined four approaches, commonly attributed to curriculum, and how the relationships between teacher and learner change, as do the outcomes.

A laissez-faire plan allows a visitor to self-direct and pursue their own interests, with a desired outcome being an enjoyable experience.  On the contrary, the Tylerian method is what we most associate with a traditional classroom – a teacher imparts knowledge to the learner with success measured by how well the learner grasps major themes.  In a constructivist approach, the teacher facilitates through provocative questioning, placing the emphasis on a learner’s self-generated solutions.  Answers are not absolute, but success involves the visitor generating their own answers.  Finally, a narrative path  turns both teacher and learner into storytellers, where facts become stories, and the learner ultimate relates their self-knowledge into the broader, contextual narrative of the program.

It was interesting for us all – educators from the Freer/Sackler to NASM to American History – to think about the approaches used at the Smithsonian, and their effectiveness.  What seems most clear is that no methodology is objective nor comprehensive – the same exhibit might employ all of them to great success.  Rather than neat boxes, these approaches seem to represent a spectrum to consider while evaluating the museum as learning environment.