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?

A night of music with Rahim AlHaj

Oud virtuoso Rahim AlHaj performs at the Arab American National Museum

Oud virtuoso Rahim AlHaj performs at the Arab American National Museum

The Arab American National Museum (AANM), our Smithsonian Affiliate in Dearborn, Michigan, is the first museum in the world devoted to Arab American history and culture.  Through its programs and exhibits the museum, situated in the midst of the largest Arab American community in the U.S., demonstrates how “Arab Americans have enriched the economic, political and cultural landscape of American life.”  One powerful example of this mission came to life October 1, when museum-goers had the opportunity to hear one of the world’s master oud players, Smithsonian Folkways Grammy-nominated recording artist, Rahim AlHaj accompanied by percussionist, Issa Malluf. 


AlHaj, a native of Iraq, and a student of the famed Munir Bashir, graduated from the Baghdad Conservatory of Music in 1990.  A political exile shortly afterwards, AlHaj lived in Jordan and Syrian until granted refugee status and resettled in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2000.  His virtuosity and bubbling personality have helped relaunch an impressive performing and recording career, bringing the sound of the oud and its 5000-year old history to audiences all over the United States, and increasingly around the world.


AlHaj and the Smithsonian came together under the guiding hand of the Smithsonian Folkways Deputy Director and Middle Eastern music scholar, D. A. Sonneborn.  The resulting album, When the Soul is Settled: Music of Iraq, earned a Grammy nomination in 2008 and, in the words of one critic, “was like God breathing life into clay.”   This may well describe how many in the audience felt on October 1.


Through the auspices of the Arab American National Museum, AlHaj and percussionist Malluf, had the opportunity to demonstrate their art to students at the O.W. Holmes Elementary and Middle School in Dearborn.  All seemed intrigued, delighted, and by the end of the session, a little more informed about the great traditions of Middle Eastern music, lovingly performed by these dedicated artists. 


Our thanks to Anan Ameri, Devon Akmon, Aaron Barndollar and their wonderful colleagues at the Arab American National Museum, and to D.A. Sonneborn, Dan Sheehy, Richard Burgess, Pete Reiniger and their colleagues at Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, for applying their energies and resources toward keeping this music alive and accessible, and for bringing this awesome Affiliate moment together on a night in Michigan, that few will forget.


See the photo album from the concert on the Smithsonian In Your Neighborhood Facebook page.

Deep in the heart of Texas

Submitted by Harold A. Closter, Smithsonian Affiliations Director

The Ten Thousand Springs Pavilion at the Irving Arts Center

The Ten Thousand Springs Pavilion at the Irving Arts Center

 Four days, six Affiliates and five hundred miles.  

We try to make the most of our visits to Smithsonian Affiliates and especially enjoy the vitality and diversity of our partners in the Dallas area.  The catalyst for this trip, July 12 – 15, was the opening of Within The Emperor’s Garden: The Ten Thousand Springs Pavilion at the Irving Arts Center.  Director Richard Huff and his staff did a magnificent job of situating this intricate and massive structure and accompanying text and graphic panels in the Center’s main lobby.

The Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute organized the exhibition;  conservator Don Williams and his team of volunteers assembled the 3,000 pieces – a show all by itself.  Opening day featured family-friendly activities ranging from Chinese calligraphy to Tai Chi.  Paula Wallace, President of the Savannah College of Art and Design greeted guests, as did Tsai Lien, General Counsel in Houston of the People’s Republic of China, and other officials from the city of Irving.  The exhibition stays on display until July 2010.  If you’re in Texas, stop off and see it.

And if you have a few more days, check out the other Affiliates on my route: The Women’s Museum: An Institute for the Future; the Museum of Nature and Science; the African American Museum; Frontiers of Flight Museum; and a little further away but well worth it, the Star of the Republic Museum in Washington, birthplace of Texas independence.

Thanks to Affiliates in Dallas, visitors can see our national collections – from space capsules to sports history – upfront and expertly displayed.  The lone star shines very bright on Smithsonian Affiliates deep in the heart of Texas.

Collaborating in Pennsylvania

I just got back from a road trip to Pennsylvania, and what struck me with all the Affiliates I visited there was the various and creative ways they are all collaborating, with each other and with their greater communities.

In Hershey…

Motorcycles and buses at the Antique Automobile Museum of America Museum

The Antique Automobile Club of America Museum partnered a while ago with the Museum of Bus Transportation that occupies their lower floor.  The Bus Museum has the largest collection of historic buses under one roof in the United States, including the Lakeland Bus Lines bus from the movie “Forrest Gump”. Recently, they’ve also partnered with the Antique Motorcycle Club of America to provide gallery space for some pretty amazing vehicles, including a 19th century steam “motorcycle.” Different collections, common mission – what better idea than to partner to present various views on the history of transportation in America?

In Pittsburgh…

Betty Siegel, Director of Accessibility at the Kennedy Center, with Pittsburgh's performing arts community

At the Heinz History Center, 60 professionals from the cultural and performing arts organizations in Pittsburgh came together for a training on incorporating the lessons of universal design for the benefit of their visitors. The training itself was a collaboration – between the accessibility directors of the Smithsonian and the Kennedy Center. Not only was the discussion itself very informative and resource-rich, but the participants started discussing ways they could collaborate outside the session – theaters buying expensive LED readers together that they could share, or hiring audio descriptors to service several of their organizations’ exhibitions, so as to cut costs.

In Easton… the director of the National Canal Museum shared the various ways he’s working with nearby Historic Bethlehem Partnership.  For example, together they are meeting with officials in the state government to make a regional case for support instead of just an individual one, and brainstorming ways to attract incoming casino patrons (a Sands Casino opens in Bethlehem in June) to visit both museums to experience the bigger picture of the rich industrial heritage of the Lehigh Valley.

I may be looking too hard for silver lining in this economic crisis, but the ways that it is encouraging cultural organizations to come together in innovative ways gives me hope for the future – for these museums and the communities they continue to impact.

In Plane View at Kansas Cosmosphere

Chuck Yeager's Bell X-1 Glamorous Glennis

The Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center, our Smithsonian Affiliate in Hutchinson, Kansas, served as the perfect backdrop for the opening stop of the national tour of In Plane View/Abstractions of Flight, a traveling exhibit from the National Air and Space Museum, featuring the remarkable photographs of Smithsonian photographer, Carolyn Russo. As a guest attendee on January 30, I found myself in awe of the creativity that surrounded me.  The Cosmosphere is a tribute to the educational creativity of Patricia Brooks Carey, who in 1962 started a small planetarium on the grounds of the Kansas State Fair, in what was described to me as “an old chicken coop.”  The chicken coop became the Cosmosphere in 1980, and has since grown into the second largest collection of US space artifacts in the world, and the largest collection of Soviet space artifacts outside of Moscow.  More than 125 objects on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum help tell the story, among them the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft and Apollo 13 command module.  

Russo’s creativity comes from an unmatched gift for seeing designs and patterns in airplanes and spacecraft and for translating them into alluring and thought-provoking photographic images.  In Plane View consists of 56 large-format photographs that remind us that machines of flight are more than hunks of riveted metal attached to large engines, and flown only by the fearless.  They are, through Russo’s artistry, artifacts imbued with mystical geometries, strange symmetry, sensuous curves, and bold colorations.  What Amelia Earhart called “the aesthetic appeal of flying” comes through in unusual and unexpected bursts in Russo’s photographs.  Chris Orwell, director of the Cosmosphere, and his staff did a terrific job of mounting the exhibition and hosting the opening reception.  The photographs were hung with  exceptional care, and stood out wonderfully under the newly installed lighting system.  With a soft harp playing in the background, guests including Alan Shepherd’s daughter, Laura Churchley, enjoyed conversing with Russo, who also signed copies of the book that accompanies the exhibit.  

Nearby, I couldn’t help but notice a lone exhibit case housing a battered old star-making device, recently recovered from a local school that turned out to be the original projector from the first planetarium shows at the “old chicken coop.”  Though a bit rusty and worn, it too spoke of creative impulses – the kind that start at the edges of our universe and reach deep down into the curiosity within each of us.   Carolyn, the Cosmosphere, and the chicken coop brought us together that night in a memorable and inspiring way.  Isn’t that what museums are supposed to do?  

Smithsonian Affiliates will continue to enjoy In Plane View/Abstractions of Flight when it visits The Air Zoo (Kalamazoo, MI), Frontiers of Flight (Dallas, TX), The Works:  Ohio Center for History, Art & Technology (Newark, OH), College Park Aviation Museum (College Park, MD), Lakeview Museum of Arts and Sciences (Peoria, IL), and Challenger Space Center (Peoria, AZ).  I hope you’ll have a chance to soar with it. 

Jewish Museum “Steels” Spotlight

 Thanks to Ilana Blumenthal, Public Relations Associate at NMAJH for this guest blog post.    

NMAJH staff.jpg

With the sun in our eyes, frostbite nearly setting in, and huge grins on our faces, the staff and board members of the National Museum of American Jewish History watched as the final 31-foot steel beam was placed on the northwest corner of the 121-foot and six-inch high, 100,000-square-foot, five story new Museum building. This traditional steel workers “topping off” ceremony took place on a 20-degree day on January 21, completing a significant milestone for the building being constructed on Independence Mall in Philadelphia that will serve as a cornerstone of the modern-day Jewish community.

Designed by Polshek Partnership Architects of New York, the new Museum will be in the heart of historic Philadelphia and will join Independence Hall, the National Constitution Center, the Liberty Bell and other landmarks at the site of America’s birth. The new Museum will open in 2010.

Prior to being hoisted with banners from the Museum, Ironworkers Local Union 401, and INTECH Construction Inc., the Museum’s contractor, ironworkers, staff, board, and INTECH employees signed their names on the beam as a sign of pride, accomplishment, and ownership. Atop the beam sits an American flag and evergreen tree (not to be confused with a Christmas tree), traditional symbols of the ironworkers’ceremony.

With the steel structure finished, the next steps for the building will be pouring its concrete floors and the construction of the north and west walls. The west wall facing Independence Mall will be a glass prism, expressing the accessibility of the museum and the openness of America, as well as the perennial fragility of democracy. The north wall will be constructed of terra cotta, expressing the strength of Jewish survival and the protective shelter of American freedom.

“With this phase of the construction complete, and as the Museum takes shape on Independence Mall, I think it becomes clear that there could not be a more fitting place for a museum that will explore the promise and challenges of liberty through the lens of the American Jewish experience,” said Gwen Goodman, the NMAJH’s Executive Director/CEO.

The new National Museum of American Jewish History will be the first and only major museum dedicated to chronicling the American Jewish experience. It will explore the challenges of identity and assimilation they faced and celebrate the contributions they have made to every facet of American life. The Museum is dedicated to telling the still unfolding story of Jews in America – who embraced freedom with its choices and challenges as they shaped, and were shaped by, our nation. The Museum envisions its new home as a place that welcomes all people, inviting them to discover what they have in common with the Jewish experience in America, and to explore the features that make this history distinctive.

raising NMAJH.jpg

 high steel NMAJH.jpg