Is your audience contributing to your permanent exhibitions? Should they?

It’s refreshing that in an age when “interactivity” seems synonymous with “hi tech,” (see post below!) Museums still find ways to engage simply with pen and paper.  This has long been true with younger audiences of course, with carts, activity rooms, etc.  An inspiring reminder of audience input comes from a recent story in the newsletter of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.  In preparing for their new 22,000 sf permanent exhibition to open in 2010, the Museum’s exhibition designers mounted a show asking for substantial feedback from visitors on a range of topics.  The staff did not avoid difficult issues, as so often happens, as the questions range from “Should the U.S. always support Israel’s policies?”  “Is it fair for rabbinical seminaries to refuse to ordain gay and lesbian rabbis?” Does intermarriage represent the triumph of American pluralism?”  

 NMAJH2       NMAJH1

But the bigger issue is one that seems to resurface again and again, that of “authority” and the blurring of lines between the Museum’s authority, and the perceived authority of its visitors to create and contribute their own perspectives, and the expectation that they’ll be taken seriously.  There seem to be a few common responses to this issue in the meetings I attend – either flat out resistance, the argument that a Museum can present both equally without harm, and the idea that, in a few years as the YouTube generation becomes full blown professionals, it won’t matter – all the content will be fluid and democratic.  What do you think? 

Goings-on around the Smithsonian

Here’s some random, current news of potential interest, and opportunities for professional development if you’re interested.  Hope you can join us!

SEEC  The Smithsonian’s Early Enrichment Center is holding their annual seminar, Creating Collection with Young Children, on Saturday, February 9.  If you’ve never taken one of their courses, and are interested in reaching pre-K students in your galleries, SEEC is the gold standard.  The staff there builds their curriculum around Smithsonian collections, and takes toddlers into our museums every day, so they have a plethora of great ideas to share.

Smithsonian staff were recently treated to a symposium on green and sustainable efforts underway at SI.  To see the webcast, click here

STRI  Speaking of sustainability, how do you feel about a few days in the tropics?!  The Zoo’s Center for Biodiversity Conservation, Education and Sustainability has teamed up with our Tropical Research Institute to offer “Climate Change and Biodiversity in the Americas,” a forum for scientists to present research relating to climate change and forest biodiversity and build a network of monitoring systems.  February 25-29 at STRI in Panama.

Black History Month at SI    Black History Month is almost upon us!  The Smithsonian Magazine’s website will post celebrations around the country, highlighting those at Affiliates.  To see what’s happening around SI and to grab some educational materials, check out the Black History Month site –

Finally, Smithsonian staff were treated to a fascinating symposium yesterday, outlining the Library of Congress’ new pilot program with  Check out the description of the pilot – wherein Library staff uploaded over 3000 of its historic images to the flickr site.  It was a great opportunity to witness the power of social media – flickr users’ comments and tags showed how engaged they were in helping others to understand the image, relate them to other topics and websites, and even provide missing information to the library for further research.  We’re getting into the game too – check out these flickr photos of Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert, and his portrait at the National Gallery.

Colbert portrait at National Portrait Gallery  (Stephen Colbert’s portait in the restroom lobby at the National Portrait Gallery)


Happy new year!

Happy 2008!  We look forward to a year full of collaboration and many successes!  Among some of our earliest ones:

Congratulations to our newest Affiliates –

The Mennello Museum of American Art, Orlando, FL
Naples Museum of Art, Naples, FL
Historic Arkansas Museum, Little Rock, AR

Finance Museum     Finance Museum  
Kudos and congratulations ! to the Museum of American Finance on the opening of their new building and exhibitions at 48 Wall Street in New York City.  Roughly 10 times bigger than their former space, the new building is located in the stunning former headquarters of the Bank of New York – founded by Alexander Hamilton – and located a block away from the New York Stock Exchange.

The Smithsonian’s American History Museum director Brent Glass spoke at the opening of the Museum on January 10, praising their exhibits on various markets (pork bellies anyone?!), different types of currency (including early beaver pelts!), entrepreneurs (like jetBlue founder David Neeleman), and financial history (like a piece of ticker tape from the crash of 1929).  The Museum has also installed a “teaching ticker” to demystify that perpetual scroll of symbols, and other devices designed to enhance financial literacy for visitors of all ages.  Read more about the Museum in this Reuters article.

According to the exhibition’s designers and Museum staff, the cacophony of the exhibits is deliberate, to capture the sense of buzz and energy that personifies Wall Street and the floor of the Exchange.  And that it does.  Well done!!!


Report from the Road: New York City

I just returned from a whirlwind tour, visiting 8 Affiliates and 2 SI units in New York City and Newark, NJ.  What exciting things are happening there!

The New Jersey Historical Society opened SITES’ Our Journeys Our Stories, welcoming a strong turnout from media, local officials and a Latino public that, while prominent in the city, has never before been represented in an exhibition at NJH.  Congratulations!

The Way we Worked  Also opening, SITES’ The Way We Worked at Snug Harbor Cultural Center on Staten Island.  What a beautiful installation of this exhibition.  Snug Harbor had a double opening as well, and also opened Holiday Pop Ups an exhibition on moveable books on loan from the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum library. 

What a fun way to celebrate the holidays!   Holiday Pop Ups

American Finance Museum  Another highlight was a hard hat tour of the Museum of American Finance‘s new home at 48 Wall Street.  They have transformed the former Bank of New York into a top-rate Museum devoted to financial literacy, with interactive exhibits, a theater and multi-purpose education space, all just steps away from the New York Stock Exchange. 

Finally, I was able to celebrate with the staff of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.  Just announced to the press, the Museum was chosen as the main cultural component in the redevelopment of the Victoria Theater on 125th street, right next to the Apollo.  While the Museum enjoys enormous community support with its many ingenious programs (also available to Affiliates!), it can now look forward to a permanent home with galleries for its collections and exhibitions (and hopefully, some of the Smithsonian’s too.) 

Loren and the JMIH sign Co-director Loren Schoenberg looks on as the Museum’s first (in a long line I’m sure) piece of signage gets installed. 

No doubt 2008 promises more such exciting developments from Affiliates nationwide.  We certainly hope the Smithsonian, in its many manifestations, can be right there with you to celebrate.

a new Museum of Biodiversity

Affiliations was in the spotlight this week as Dr. George Angehr, Curator of Exhibitions at our Affiliate, the Museum of Biodiversity in Panama, lectured to about 50 Smithsonian staff about this exciting project. 

Museum of Biodiversity  Dr. Angehr is also a research associate at the Smithsonian’s Tropical Research Institute in Panama, a major collaborator on content with the new museum.  Some of the hottest names in design will realize the project – Frank O. Gehry is designing the building, and Bruce Mau is creating the exhibitions.

As to the Museum’s plan (which is in the shape of Panama by the way), an exhibition strategy that struck me as particularly interesting was the elimination of the “middle scale.”  That is, the Museum plans to commission artists to create a “device of wonder” for every gallery – a large installation that abstracts and represents a scientific concept theme aesthetically, while attracting visitors by its scale.  If that doesn’t sound interesting enough!, the rest of the gallery features will then be intimate and interactive, on a personal scale.

The whole project sounds absolutely fascinating – the design, the partners, the content and the context of Panama itself!  And how proud are we that they are a Smithsonian Affiliate?!



Courtyard   Affiliations staff participated in a lovely morning tour of the newest spectacular space at the Smithsonian, the Kogod Courtyard at the Reynolds Center.  (American Art Museum  & Portrait Gallery’s building). 

Our pictures wouldn’t do it justice, so check out the awesome images from their public opening a few days ago on SAAM’s blog.    

Can’t wait for Affiliates to experience it too!