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.

Dynamo!

Check out Heritage Harbor’s new website – heritageharbor.org – and the great coverage they got in kicking off the redevelopment of the appropriately-named Dynamo House, a former power plant that will become the Museum’s home in a few years.  They’ve also started an education blog at heritageharboreducation.blogspot.com.  

dynamo house from across the riverCongratulations Heritage Harbor! dynamo group.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. 

Traveling exhibitions available from the National Museum of Dentistry

The National Museum of Dentistry is pleased to announce the availability of two traveling exhibitions: The Future is Now! African Americans in Dentistry and Branches, Bristles and Batteries: Toothbrushes through Time.

The Future is Now! African Americans in Dentistry pays tribute to the extraordinary men and women who paved the way for African Americans’ success as dental professionals. With dramatic portraits, poignant memoirs and stories of individual and collective achievement, this exhibition inspires and educates visitors of every age.  The exhibition includes a moving photographic timeline of  the complex and inspiring story of individual accomplishment, educational advancement and organizational success from the 1860s through the present day; and provides a valuable new point of engagement with the youth of a host’s communities, with the potential to spark an interest in considering dentistry as a lifetime career.

The exhibition is appropriate for a wide range of museums, including institutions devoted to science, health, and history.  It is presented in partnership with the National Dental Association, and is available for a cost of $5,000 plus incoming shipping costs.  

Did you know that the first modern toothbrush was invented in the late 1700’s?  Filled with fascinating facts and fun activities for the whole family, Branches, Bristles and Batteries: Toothbrushes through Time allows children and adults to “brush up” on truths about toothbrushes while helping to develop habits that ensure good oral health. 

Targeted to elementary-age children, the exhibition includes interactives that encourage healthy eating, the importance of brushing, and an understanding of the toothbrush’s role in history.  It provides an excellent opportunity to partner with local professionals to promote dental health education outreach. 

The exhibition is appropriate for science, health and children’s museums, and is made possible by the support of United Concordia Companies, Inc.  It is available for a cost of $5,000 plus incoming shipping costs.

Educational and marketing materials, installation instructions and condition reports are included in the registration packets of both exhibitions.  To learn more about these exhibitions and for booking information, please contact Scott Swank, DDS, Curator at 410.706.8704 or sswank@dentalmuseum.umaryland.edu