colorlogo2.gif  I just returned from lovely Portland Maine and the annual New England Museum Association conference.  One of the things I admire most about this conference is how honest people are – participants and presenters.  I so frequently heard comments like, “ultimately, the program didn’t work so well” or “yeah, we found that the particular board model we adopted wasn’t functional in the end” or “if you can’t get good feedback from your community on an exhibition, maybe they’re just not into it and you should let it go.”  How refreshing to share mistakes so everyone can learn from them!

Other highlights?  The keynote speaker, Harold Skramstad, president emeritus of the Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village.  He talked about how outdated so many museum missions are – the old “collect, preserve, interpret” line just doesn’t cut it anymore.  Instead, he challenged participants to think about what is their organization’s ‘value add’ to their community, as defined by the community itself. 

A braintrust from MIT presented on new technologies for museums.  They seem to be heading into Web 3.0!  They are far beyond podcasting and blogs, and into the ubitiquous media-rich immersive environments such as the Spy Experience in DC or The Tomb experience in Boston.  Fascinating stuff – here’s a sample.   

My favorite quote came from a session with Mystic Seaport and our Rhode Island Affiliate, Heritage Harbor.  The presenters urged the audience to be absolutely ruthless in self-analysis of what you have, what you can truly do with it, and who will care.  The earlier this analysis is done, and the more ruthless it is, the more time and money will be saved and allocated wisely.  Hard core museum talk indeed! 

Breaking Ground!

Congratulations to two Affiliates who have reached milestones in their development – groundbreaking on new museums that promise to be stellar contributions to America’s cultural landscape.

philly 030.jpg   On September 30 in Philadelphia, the National Museum of American Jewish History broke ground on its phenomenal new space at 5th and Market streets, directly across Independence Mall from the Liberty Bell.  On hand to make comments and celebrate with NMAJH staff were Senator Arlen Specter, Governor Edward Rendell, Mayor John Street and several other members of the City Council and state government.  The Museum, designed by renowed architect James Polshek, will showcase the history of Jews in America, from the 17th century to the present.  Click here for more pictures of this event.

hh groundbreaking 018.jpg  On November 8, the long-awaited Heritage Harbor Museum in Providence, Rhode Island celebrated the start of its renovation of the South Street power plant (appropriately renamed “Dynamo House”).  The Museum will ultimately share this huge historical site with a Starwood hotel and restaurant.  Shown here are Mayor David Cicilline and the developer, Bill Struever, opening the gate for confetti to fly, marking the beginning of the renovation project.  Heritage Harbor will share the history of Rhode Island through interactive exhibits.

Both projects plan to open by summer 2010.  I’m sure we all can’t wait to visit!

Artists rendering of the new National Museum of American Jewish History     Model of Heritage Harbor Museum
the new NMAJH         the new Heritage Harbor

IMLS training graphic

Shaping Outcomes

shaping outcomes.gif 

Are you familiar with this course offered through IMLS?  Several SI staff had the opportunity to participate in a training session about this approach yesterday, and it was a real eye-opener.  Here’s an example –

In a typical project, you get an idea.  You plan the program, budgeting resources and costs, and argue successfully for modest funding.  You offer the services and monitor the results. 

Using Outcomes Based Planning and Evaluation, planning of the program includes defining what success will look like for the specific target audience, and how you will evaluate that outcome based on measurable indicators.  It makes you realize the difference between outputs and outcomes, outcomes being so much richer in terms of demonstrating long-term impact on your audience.  And that’s the key – the goals are centered on the end user, the specific target audience, be they African Americans in Chicago, 8th graders on a tour to DC, or 20-somethings with stereotypes on Asians (all actual Smithsonian examples which came up.)

Much of this content may sound like common sense, or like every strategic planning book you’ve ever read.  Many of the methodologies are the same.  But I would recommend this approach nonetheless… the online course is free, and is peppered with really wonderful case studies. 

Especially interesting to me was to see how often the goals I identified were institutional goals, rather than audience goals - the opposite of the Shaping Outcomes objective.  Whether the audience I defined were Affiliate organizations themselves, or the audiences they serve, our goals at Affiliations are the same – that they can access, appreciate, and be transformed by the Smithsonian, the national museum that they support through their tax dollars.  When that happens, it’s as good for us as it hopefully is for the audience.  Maybe that’s not so bad?! 

Smithsonian on iTunes

A nugget to add to the “who knew?!” category…

We recently got an announcement that Smithsonian’s Global Sound, a program of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, had launched a new section on the iTunes store in the iTunes U section called ‘Beyond Campus.’ One of only 6 organizations featured in this new project (with MoMA, American Public Media and others), this site gives free access to lesson plans, education kits, and videos that utilize and relate to Global Sound recordings for sale on SI websites and in the iTunes store.

alhaj.jpg  It’s fabulous. For example, I watched a three-minute video of the 2007 Teacher of the Year talk about how she used Global Sound to introduce her students to the music of Zimbabwe, and to explain the different classifications of instruments. I watched a short video of Iraqi virtuoso Rahim Alhaj record a song on the oud. (I didn’t know what an oud was either! the ” (ōōd) ” is a pear-shaped, stringed instrument similar to a lute used in traditional Middle Eastern music.  See picture above.) I downloaded the Center’s fantastic Oral History Interviewing Guide. You can search the site by instrument, culture, country, genre.. you name it.

How can Affiliates use this? Why not consider SI Global Sound next time you’d like to add a soundtrack to your African art exhibit? Do you have musical instruments in your collection, and need ideas for fresh ways to interpret them to your audiences? Chances are, Global Sound has a lesson plan or a video of someone playing the instrument, that you can share with your visitors.

So for fun while surfing around iTunes, I searched for ‘Smithsonian’ to see what else they might have. Need a new podcast to listen to on your way to work by chance?!
si podcast.jpg  The Institution’s podcasts are collected here. Some are familiar – the Hirshhorn and the Freer/Sackler presented theirs at an Affiliations Conference a few years ago. But have you heard Cheetah Chat from the National Zoo? Interested in hearing about what Smithsonian scientists are researching these days? The Undersecretary of Science has a podcast to share our findings. NMAI is producing fabulous podcasts that are audio or video recordings of their concerts, public art projects, or particular objects in their exhibitions (like a Tlingit elder describing the craftsmanship and story behind a Brown Bear Clan Hat from Alaska).

The depths of content and possible applications to plumb here are very deep… have fun! 

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!

Web 2.0

Do you currently use these sites? 

 You Tube   flickr   MySpace  

Are you blogging or podcasting from your site?  If so, you’re navigating Web 2.0. 

An array of Smithsonian webmasters led a fascinating discussion today on the challenges and implications of Web 2.0, which, according to wikipedia (appropriately enough) refers to the newest generation of the web that faciliates greater user interaction in the creation and sharing of content.  Here’s some highlights from the discussion:

Who’s the authority?
  The great fear of many museums – if users are commenting and manipulating our content (collections, images, etc.), how will the public know what’s true?  SI webmasters seemed to be unified in their response to this topic – essentially, who cares?  Michael Edson of the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum pointed to the New York Times, in that their site posts letters to the editor right next to articles and editorials.  The American History Museum’s Matt MacArthur highlighted their collection pages, which invite visitors to comment on featured artifacts.  It becomes fairly obvious which voice you’re reading – the Museum’s or its visitors.  Plus, let’s give our visitors the benefit of the doubt in terms of critical thinking!

How will what we do on the web affect our brand?  What’s the differences between our virtual presence, and our bricks & mortar experience?  Guess what?  For younger consumers (say, roughly under 50), there is no difference.  Brand perception is exactly the same whether they are in your building or on your website – they expect both experiences to be great, and identical. 

Super serve your niche.  When asked how to reach people who aren’t accessing your site, the answer was to focus on your core community first.  If your visitors aren’t finding high res images, or lesson plans, or your hours, easily, fix it.  A point that was made consistently was the viral nature of Web 2.0 – the better you are, the more your core, devoted visitors will “tag” you, will blog about you on their own sites, will add you to (look it up!).  Your popularity will grow organically.

Look for yourself!  This is a fun exercise – see (and make sure you know) what people are already saying about you.  You’d be surprised.  Tim Grove, an educator at NASM, shared his experience in finding a video on YouTube about a teen’s boring visit to the Museum!  (there are much better videos about them there too, don’t worry.)  Wonderful pictures from the 2007 Folklife Festival were posted on flickr, some with the guidance of the Smithsonian’s Photography Initiative.  Try looking up “smithsonian affiliate” on any of these sites and you’ll find some great stuff we didn’t even know existed!   

Want to know more?  AAM is all over this, and so are lots of museums.  Check out AAM’s blog, Museum 2.0.  The current issue of Museum News has an article on museums in Second Life, and plenty of articles on the topic.  The Brooklyn Museum gives a good glimpse into some cutting-edge applications (i.e., their visitor video competition on YouTube).  I would also highly recommend Stephen Johnson’s Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software which, among other things, conceptually links the characteristics of Web 2.0 with those of slime molds!

And speaking of user-generated content, what do you think?!