Spying New Beginnings

delight + insight = a powerful, memorable experience

One common thread between almost all of the museums that we have visited within the last two weeks is that things always need to be changing– whether that is for the betterment of the institution, to encourage visitors to come back, or simply just because times change. This probably most obvious in the International Spy Museum, which is almost at the end of a long road to build a new museum.

Their organizational touch point for the new project, seen above, was to create both delight and insight for the visitor so that they have a powerful and memorable experience. It was clear from the explanation that each portion of the new Spy museum, so far, has been carefully laid out to achieve these feelings, from the inclusion of topics beyond espionage, to encouraging exploration, to insuring that everyone has an “entry point” that appeals to them, each aspect was planned to create a balanced equation between fun and learning.

The “equation,” if you will, truly resonated with me though because it fits into all of the conversations about storytelling that museums have told us about– just as they have all discussed change in some form. NMAAHC balanced delight and insight by making a powerful learning experience in their History Galleries and a fun environment in the upstairs galleries. NMNH used their target audience as the balance point in exhibitions. The National Air and Space Museum is starting to use technology as a entry point into learning while making it more engaging and fun. The list goes on….


….Until we reach our seminar program itself. We gained so much insight from this two week program that I feel as if I am a bit saturated with museum-related information (in a good way… if that makes sense), and being allowed to see first hand what so many museum professionals are talking about– both front of house, and behind the scenes– was a delight to my inner museum nerd. The trip was a wonderful, if exhausting, experience and I can’t wait to go back to my own museum and share everything that I learned!

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Introducing Time Travel!

If only historians had access to time machines…. it would make our work so much easier!

Unfortunately, we don’t. Instead we have to help the visitor to feel like they have a better understanding of how people lived in the past through as many different formats as we possibly can. One of the most popular and well loved (from a visitor point of view!) of these experiences is to have first-person interpreters roaming the site.

I find it interesting that over the course of the week, very few people we have talked to have discussed this niche of storytelling and, the two times we did hear about it, very different views were expressed. Angie Dodson, of Hillwood Estate, admitted that she originally had very negative views of costumed interpretation– partially because it seemed like it was “making fun of the past” or “fake.” She has slowly changed her mind about the process because of a shift in how the interpreters are presented– they are no longer “entertainment” but more of an educational tool to help guests start conversations.


French Festival at Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens (taken from their website)

This is very similar to what Jonathan Wood of Mount Vernon was saying as well. He has a much more difficult role to play– that of an enslaved man– but many of his comments focused on the conversational element that his portrayal allowed. Both Jonathan and the Mount Vernon organization seems to have a much more positive view of costumed interpreters then Angie did… they currently have 6 characters in addition to Mr. and Mrs. Washington, and the program has been in place for at least 5-10 years.


Jonathan Wood in his role as an enslaved valet at Mount Vernon. (Mt Vernon Gazette

Having done first-person and third-person costumed interpretation personally, I can appreciate both sides of the issue– it all depends on whether the portrayal is being used primarily for entertainment or education. If it is for entertainment, oftentimes it can have that hallow ring of being a false facade but if  facts and true stories are used as the base of the performance, then it can have an immersive effect that transports the visitor and helps them to connect on a human level.


In one of my roles at a local Civil War event


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Chief Storyteller

We have talked with many museum professionals about ways that they incorporate storytelling into their institutions and a common thread has been that the stories always relate back to the content– through the exhibits, programming, visitor experience– but what about the larger story on the impact within the community?

This topic was touched on by Gretchen Jennings of the Empathetic Museum and, coincidentally, on a blog post published by the American Association of State and Local History entitled Chief Storytellers and the Search for Relevance, on April 24th, by Bethany Hawkins. Much like what Roni White was talking about on our first day of the seminar on an individual level, Hawkins asks:

How can the history field reframe our “elevator speech” or typical luncheon presentation to focus less on who we are and what we do and more on our impact on society? If we can do this, we can ensure our institution’s story lives on.

By framing institutional stories in a way that shows how an institution impacts its surrounding community, not only does the purpose become more clear, but so does it’s stance as a leader in community affairs, as well as starting to move up the scale in the maturity model developed by the Empathetic Museum. This model was created on an institutional level to build bridges with a museum’s surroundings and make sure that what they are doing within their walls connects with what is going on around them outside.

A museum isn’t much without it’s visitor base and by telling the institutional story– even if it is in a negative way to show how much it has grown– helps more people get the feeling that the museum is “for them.”


This exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History is a great example of an institution becoming more open with their public to create an institutional story. All of the objects are displayed in a way that lets the visitor feel like they are going behind the scenes and are connected on a deeper level with the museum 


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Unexhibitable? or just Difficult?

One of my favorite readings that has stuck with me throughout my graduate program was for the Introduction to Museum Education class: The Unexhibitable: A Conversation, by Gretchen Jennings and Maureen McConnell.

It poses the question: What, if anything is “unexhibitable”?

We have gone to some very provocative museums– NMAAHC, The United States Holocaust Museum, The Museum of the American Indian– but the common thread between all of them seems to be that almost nothing is unexhibitable, if framed the in the right way for the correct audiences; which mirrors Jennings and McConnell’s conclusions in their article.

NMAAHC addresses difficult topics such as slavery, the abuse that many African Americans received, slave ships, the violence of the Civil Rights Movement, all, seemingly, with ease. Much of the content is tailored to fit the story that they are telling and any portions that might be more difficult for a sensitive, or younger audiences are either regulated to a side gallery, slightly off the beaten path, or marked with a red highlight that allows the option to read the text or not.

The Museum of the American Indian has a slightly different difficult topic for their exhibitions– do they approach the topic through the eyes of Americans? the US government? Of Native peoples? Finding that balance seems to be one of the primary goals of their exhibitions in order to balance the difficult subjects that their visitors come into the museum having some background knowledge of (even if it is typically wrong, or skewed by media). NMAI has the unique problem of actually having artifacts that they cannot display– both ethically and because of the terms of NAGPRA– which could cause potential problems if something falls into that grey area, or is not interpreted correctly. Bones are an obvious unexhibitable object but other ceremonial artifacts might not be as clear.

The United States Holocaust Museum has been tasked to present even more difficult topics– those of death, suffering, and betrayal. While I have never gone through the permanent exhibit, Daniel’s Story–the child and family version– has stuck with me for the 12 years since I first saw it. It touches on all of the difficult topics of the Holocaust in a way that doesn’t reduce the issues, but presents them in a more approachable way that children–their primary audience– can understand. I feel like, if they can create an exhibit that accurately covers the horrors of the Holocaust in a way that children can comprehend, then anything is possible!

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Dirty Petticoats

Dirty Petticoats are often used in cinematic storytelling to show that a woman is outside of the usual realm of what she is supposed to be doing.

In this case, however, it was a warning, use to place us “poor females” deeper into the story, among other warnings which included watching out for the “wild horses, which have been known to buck even the most skilled of riders” (aka segway tours), advice to avoid Hooker’s District because “if you are robbed or stabbed, don’t go to the police, we’ll assume that you had it coming to you,” and to leave the herds of cows in peace and keep an eye out for any of the “remains” of their business.

Don’t worry– we did spend the weekend in Washington DC… it just happened to be the capital of 1865 rather then 2017. Ford’s Theatre presents “History of Foot” tours which immerse you into the past through storytelling and we became deputy detectives to help Detective James McDevitt of the Metropolitan Police Force find the guilty parties involved in President Lincoln’s assassination, and to decide if it was a lone act or part of a larger conspiracy.

The tours started at Ford’s Theatre, the scene of the crime, and continued for a mile and a half past major landmarks (some still there, others long gone) until we reached the White House– and our case-solving decisions. We saw photos of the parties involved, heard witness accounts and passed our judgement– the rainy day adding to the mysterious feeling of being transplanted in the past.

While some of the present time had to remain: watching out for cars while crossing the street, the large groups of people gathering for the science march, or the necessity of the Detective wearing a microphone, the script was written in a way that would explain away all these little nuisances to solidify your place in the past. I was impressed that the script specifically allowed the actor to come out of character at the end to make sure that the group was well founded in the present, and establish himself as, “not a ghost,” which is one of the hardest elements to get across when working with first-person interpreted stories.


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Recount, Remember, Refresh

One Museum, Many Stories (and Storytelling devices)

Often, when you visit a museum, the mission is to tell the story of a group of people or a place in a cohesive narrative that allows the visitor to learn, understand and hopefully connect with the content. At the Museum of African American History and Culture they managed to connect the visitor to the content around every corner–literally and figuratively.


Recount: The first opportunity to tell a story was in the History Galleries, that were the permanent exhibit on the concourse levels of the museum. The visitor is immediately immersed before you even enter the gallery because you are transported back in time as you descend the elevator (as shown by decreasing dates visible on the elevator shaft). The use of the flowing timeline that allows the visitor to walk thought the galleries and gain an understanding of the way that the African American experiences grew, changed and was shaped by outside events created a personal connection to the many objects on display. Pretty much everyone familiar with American history has heard of the slave ships, the civil war, and the civil rights movement but many have never had the opportunity to tangibly see and feel the African American side of the story– or be able to connect with it on a personal level. The NMAAHC did a wonderful job of telling the story in a way that anyone of any race could connect with!

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Remember: One of my favorite parts aspects of storytelling at NMAAHC was the opportunity to tell new stories. The three recording booths, one located on each level of the History Galleries, allowed visitors to share their personal stories with the Museum– with wildly popular success (they have recorded over 20,000 to date!). Though I can’t imagine the man (or intern!) power that they are going to need to get all of those interviews into a searchable/useable format, I’m excited to see what they can do with all of the stories that they have gathered.

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Refresh: With the level of emotionally charged material that was presented throughout the museum, it makes sense that NMAAHC would make sure to emphasize places for reflection and rejuvenation. This was very apparent in two separate (and opposite) places– the Contemplative Court and the Food Court. The Contemplative Court was a wonderful way to end the History Galleries– it was quiet, with inspirational quotes and amazingly was able to cut out all of the noise of the gigantic line of people standing just outside of it’s walls. And, as if that wasn’t enough, even the placement was very provocative– just a small entry way to the right of you as you walked out of the History Galleries, easy to miss if you weren’t looking from any other direction but fairly obvious coming from that doorway; the placement was clearly intended for use of the visitor to digest everything they just read and saw. And speaking of digestion– on a more upbeat note– even the food court was a way to help people engage with the African American experience. I have never exprienced curated food before but NMAAHC seemed to cover every aspect of typical fare– creole, southern, BBQ, and more! Even beyond the food, the captive audience of the diner was presented with walls of photos and quotes surrounded by bright colors that encouraged learning and engagement for the wandering eye. It was an ingenious way to extend the experience and encourage the visitor to never forget exactly where they were and why they were there.

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To Tell or Not to Tell… what’s the question?

One of the common themes between the National Zoo and the Hillwood Estate (who knew there would be common themes between a zoo and a historic mansion?) was about the decision to tell some stories, not to tell some stories, or telling parts of the whole.


Interpretive text at the National Zoo, note how the information is secondary to the animal.

The National Zoo had the difficult position to straddle the line of education, conservation and their public image with their scientific efforts to learn as much about the animals as they could behind the scenes. It seemed difficult to expose the zoo visitor to important information about the conservation efforts at the zoo when they are going to there to just see the animals– which is only one of many story lines. When Devora, one of the exhibit curators, was talking about the way that the information flows, it reminded me of a movie– the animals on exhibit are the primary characters in the movie storyline, they are the ones that you pay attention to, and the “extra” information is sort of a cross between a secondary character and subtitles of the movie. It is there to support the main character but, depending on the person could be one of the best parts, or the most annoying parts, of the way the movie is presented.


A Room at Hillwood. note the limited physical interpretation that makes it still feel like a room that could be lived in.

Hillwood had a similar issue of wanting to both give the visitor as much information as possible, especially now that many of their visitors know the story of Marjorie Merriweather Post, the original owner of the estate, as well as the average visitor once did, and preserving the atmosphere of a “lived in” place, as mandated by Marjorie’s will. Angie Dodson, Director of Learning & Engagement, explained to us that their interpretive style was based on a tree style (which I am picturing as a hallway hat tree stand– it make the most sense in the style of mansion!) where there are three main “branches” that they are focusing on: Marjorie as a businesswoman, philanthropist and collector. While you many not get an immediate sense of this walking through the house and property, it is clear that each bit of information presented connects to one of these parts of Marjorie’s life.

The problem that I was having when walking through the estate was wondering if I was getting all the information, or if I was missing important bit by not using all of the interpretive media. There were audio guides available, a booklet of information and a few interpretive label panels in the rooms. My audio guide headphones refused to work for me so I relied heavily on the booklet and signage but I continually wondered what pieces of the story I wasn’t receiving because I didn’t have the audio– or if I wasn’t missing anything and the different medias were repetitive.

The presentation of the styles of interpretation between the zoo and the estate were vastly different, as was the information being presented, but I was impressed by the way that each place had similar issues to overcome– which makes me feel better about having problems with interpretation at the small historic house museum I work at– if the Smithsonian hasn’t perfected it yet, it must not be meant to be perfect 🙂


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