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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 (gostonemantel.com), 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. (envirosell.com) 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 MySpace.com 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!  (cooperhewitt.org)

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?!     

  

Why do we collect this stuff? Does anybody ever look at it?

…the intriguing title to the final lecture in an excellent series by Undersecretary for Science, David Evans.  The entire series is available online at http://www2.si.edu/research/spotlight/lectures_2006.html.

The question that formed his title is a good one, considering that the largest portion of SI’s collection, some 126.5 million objects, reside in the Natural History Museum.  And did you know that 70% of that Museum is occupied by scientists and their labs?  It’s hard to imagine given the size of their public space.

But who uses the collection?  Dr. Evans gave several examples.  SI’s bird collection is used in a program with the Air Force to determine the interactions between birds and planes.  By studying the birds’ habits, flying patterns, migratory routes and physical characteristics, determinations can made regarding plane travel.  How, and why?   Well, for example, if the Air Force needs to set up an emergency take off strip for rapid troop deployment, it helps to know how to avoid the indigenous area’s bird population.

And SI’s science collections can also influence public policy, for example, in determining the history of the Earth’s climate and the effects of global warming.  How?  One example is that the toxicity in poison ivy increases as carbon dioxide in the environment increases.  Thus, by comparing former samples in our collections to those of today, scientists can begin to construct the evolution of CO2 levels in the atmosphere.  Especially important in similar studies is the use of type specimens for comparison.  A type specimen is the actual example of a plant that was used when scientists originally described and named the species.  The Smithsonian has 80-90,000 such type specimens in our collection, all of which have been digitized in high-resolution for optimized study.

My favorite question of the series came at the very end when an audience member asked, “why do scientists collect hundreds of the same type of insect, like a moth” for example?  David Evans wisely answered, “look around.  Can you imagine trying to describe the human species by having one example of a male, female and juvenile specimen?”

I never thought about it that way.