-different approaches to user involvement By Tine Seligmann, curator, Museum of Contemporary Art, Denmark
User involvement need not only be understood in terms of individual projects and educational initiatives which target specific user groups. In Washington, museums strive for a grander vision: Through a mutual exchange of knowledge and history on a daily basis, museums and their users transform institutions into living, growing organisms with diverse voices and personal narratives. -A reportage from the world’s largest museum and research institution, The Smithsonian Institution.
May I share a story with you? A middle-aged man with Asian features begins to share the story of how his facial features and the color of his skin, have made him the object of discrimination having been forced to provide identification papers despite his American citizenship.
We are at The National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. in the midst of their latest exhibition, RACE: Are We So Different? People seated on small stools are gathered round professor Tom Guglielmo from George Washington University listening intently to his discussion of race issues throughout history. The audience participates enthusiastically and their lively discussion catches the attention of several passers-by. The day’s programme is called The Scholar is in,a lecture series at the museum where the visiting public has the opportunity to meet anthropologists, researchers, historians, sociologists and the like and discuss current issues inspired by the temporary and permanent exhibitions.
Later in the day, I meet Helen on a guided tour – she is a Cherokee Indian and Cultural Interpreter at the National Museum of The American Indian. The museum’s exhibitions tell the story of the culture, history and art of Native American Indians inhabiting the Western Hemisphere. Speaking from her own personal background, Helen explains how the museum chooses not to portray the many diverse American Indian cultures in an exotic light, but rather lets their histories be told through the voices of the people themselves.
At the National Museum of American History, it’s Pat who provides the day’s Highlight tour about significant events in the museum’s history and it’s different eras. I notice once again, through these stories, the significance of a “We” and an “Us”. This, also holds true when listenting to Nick, a former engineer at the National Air and Space Museum, who has his own personal approach to his subject matter.
A personal approach I am on an educational trip to Washington D.C. to visit the world’s largest musuem and research institution The Smithsonian, which consists of 19 museums, nine research centers and a number of branch institutions worldwide (ref. 1). I am hoping to gain valuable indsight in the area of user invovlement at American museums and how it can strengthen and transcend museums’ educational departments making positive contributions to research and the overall interpretation and presentation of museum collections to the visiting public.
At the museums, I experienced a very dedicated and personal approach to various subjects. Here the histories of individuals as well as the United States as a nation were told, for example, by means of topography, portraiture and landscape painting. Even the history of aviation, and the story of how the advent of the postal service developed communication across great distances came into play.
After having participated in a number of different guided tours at these museums, I got the impression that Americans perceive themselves as a very young nation with a short history and thereby often feel compelled to relay this history through the incorporation of strong personal narratives.
You decide the next work in the exhibition
The Smithsonian is following a strategic plan for 2010-2015 which they’ve deemed “The Four Grand Challenges”: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Universe; Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet; Valuing World Cultures og Understanding the American Experience (ref. 2).
All four challenges are expressed through the exhibition content and their high degree of user involvement along with the accessibility of their research, collection, conservation and registration processes to the visiting public. An additional goal of this initiative is the strengthening of cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional collaboration. Taking a stroll through the exhibition, one can encounter a conservator excavating a dinosaur tooth from a stone block or a museum educator explaining the appearance of the DNA of a strawberry. Behind glass windows at the Luce Foundation Center (ref. 3), one can follow the proccesses involved in the conservation of picture frames, paper, stone and even entire paintings.
Here works belonging to the “archives” are displayed on large shelves designed for good visibility and accessibility. Visitors can even delve into the archive and registry databases and vote for the work which should be exhibited next etc.
Beyond the museum walls To ”empower” is defined as enabling or emparting upon another, the ability to do something him/herself. An important component of The Simthsonian’s mission is the relaying of knowledge through special courses and professional develop programs for teachers. These workshops and their accompanying materials are not solely concerned with informing teachers about the museum’s educational offerings, but also offer them useful tools allowing them to integrate cross-disciplinary, creative and innovative methods into their own classroom teaching.
Being at the forefront in the areas of E-learning, virtual classrooms and on-line dialogues, the museums are able to share their knowledge with a wide audience. For example, during my meeting with Emily and Tracie from Smithsonian Center for Education (ref.4), an on-line video conference called “Celebrate the Land” was underway. Teachers from any U.S. state could log on and send questions to researchers and curators working within different disciplines at the various museums. The video conferences would then be uploaded onto The Smithsonian’s web site (ref. 5).
Several museums also use live video conferencing with students in the classroom. For example, at The American Art Museum, students and teachers can hold a real-time video conference with an instructor from the museum’s extensive collection of American art without ever leaving the classroom(ref. 6). When schools, students and teachers can’t come to the museum, the museum comes to them.
The visitor as a creative thinker
I was truly excited to hear Jeff from the the Postal Museum discuss using the museum as a resource to communicate and build networks in the global community. He is heading up a three-year program, Mobile Learning Institute (ref. 7), which with the help of technology and the development of creative skillls, gives teachers new opportunities for their classroom teaching. In short, teachers of different subjects work together to solve assignments at the museum and are then charged with the task of finding a creative means of sharing their results with the other course participants. Through exercises of this nature, teachers obtain knowledge of and experience with creative teaching methods which they can later apply in their own classrooms.
Cross-disciplinary collaboration, creativity and innovation are truly at the center of these professional development workshops for teachers and their students. This likewise applies to activities aimed at individual museum users visiting the exhibitions. Such an example is Spark Lab at the National Museum of American History, where children, on their own or accompanied by their parents, can complete scientific experiments. One such experiement involved, for example, lifecycles. In completing such tasks, the children are able to identify themselves as creative and innovative thinkers (ref. 8).
Tell me your story
Identification, insight and mutual support create ideal parameters for learning and the sharing of knowledge. However, user involvement not only applies to individual projects aimed at specific audiences or age groups. During my time at these museums, I experienced another, greater vision concerning the sharing knowledge and the sharing of stories.
These museums and their users empowered one another through creative and innovative means. The museums were transformed into living organisms with a multitude of voices and unique narratives! In other words: What’s your story – and will you share it with me?
Facts of the trip:
The educational trip to Washington D.C. spanned over 12 days in September 2011 and was sponsored by KUAS, formidlingspulje 5: International experience sharing and competence development professional education.
Prior to the commencement of the trip, the author was in contact with The Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies where a series of meetings with the various educational officers at the different museums were arranged. The focus of my visits was placed on how American museums work with user involvement and how their approaches can strengthen museums’ educational departments, while, at the same time having a positive effect on educational initiatives and contact with the general visiting public.
1) Smithsonian: http://www.si.edu/ og
Art a la cart or Interactive carts, The American Art Museum
Art a la cart or Interactive carts are small mobile carts one encounters throughout the museums, which are linked to specific exhibits, works or historic periods. Here is a hands-on cart where a guide explains the creation of and materials used in connection with Debora Butterfiels bronze horse Monekana from 2001. Although it has the appearance of driftwood, it is, in fact, cast in bronze.
The article’s author, The Air and Space Museum
The article’s author attempts to grasp the “world” in her hands. This inflatable rubber ball is being held up by stream of air coming from the exhibit station What Makes a Wing Work at the Air and Space Museum. In the section called How Things Fly, it was possible to experiment with a number of different aerodynamic scenarios and learn, for example, what keeps a plane airborne.
Professor Tom Guglielmo form George Washington University discusses issues of race with visitors at the exhibition RACE: Are We So Different? at The National History Museum. One discussion involved how blacks were not allowed to donate blood in the past owing to the once widely held false perception that there are great disparities between black and white blood.
Cultural Interpreter, The National Museum of The American Indian,
Helen is a Cherokee Indian and Cultural Interpreter at The National Museum of The American Indian. The museum’s exhibitions tell the story of the culture, history and art of Native American Indians inhabiting the Western Hemisphere. Speaking from her own personal experience, Helen explains how the museum chooses not to portray the many diverse American Indian cultures in an exotic light, but rather lets their contemporary histories be told through the voices of the people themselves.
Behind the scenes, The National Museum of Natural History & Botanic Garden
Throughout the exhibits, one can encounter a conservator excavating a dinosaur tooth from a large stone or a museum educator explaining the DNA of a strawberry. Behind glass windows at the Luce Foundation Center, one can follow the processes involved in the conservation of picture frames, paper, stone and even entire paintings and gain insight into registration and archiving methods.
Teens! The Postal Museum & Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Teens! Here we see a group of teenagers at the Postal Museum choosing stamps to represent a story that they later will have to work on in groups. ARTLAB+ A, design studio for teens at Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is another exciting initiative, which has a Broadcast Club, artlabs, new radio station and Noise Factory.
The National Museum of Natural History
The National Museum of National History? Opened in 1910 and was one of the first museums the house the Smithsonian’s collections. The museum is the size of 18 soccer fields and has 1000 employees in the areas of research, education, and the permanent and temporary exhibition work. With a growing network of websites, the museum is a forum for national and international education and access for all.
The Mall’s Doughnut, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is a later offshoot of the original Smithsonian Museums. The museum opened in 1974 and due to its cylindrical shape has earned nicknames such as ´the bunker´, ´the gas tank´ or the Mall’s Doughnut´. Many of the museums are located in the area of The National Mall, is a large park area spanning from Capitol Hill to Washington Monument.
Discovery Kits, The National Portrait Gallery
At the National Portrait Gallery, I made use of one of their Portrait Discovery Kits. I chose the George Washington bag and, playing detective, I set off in pursuit of portraits of the first American president and learned about the different postures and symbolism a portrait can contain. The challenge is intended as an activity for children and families.