Friday, August 27, 2010

The Cleveland Museum of Art has chosen a new director

Click on the link below to read the article by The Plain Dealer's art critic, Steven Litt, detailing the Museum's choice to lead their institution through the completion of their ongoing expansion and renovation in 2013, and towards its centennial celebration in 2016.

David Franklin of the National Gallery of Canada named director of the Cleveland Museum of Art
Published: Thursday, August 26, 2010, 10:00 PM     Updated: Thursday, August 26, 2010, 10:11 PM

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Keeping it real: observations from a kid-centered visit to the Natural History Museum

Outside with Charles Herndon' s Venus from the Ice Fields
I spent the better part of four hours today at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History with my two young daughters. After breakfast I let my not quite two year-old determine the day's adventure. Given a choice between the Zoo, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and CMNH, her answer was "dinosaurs," so off we went. As is often the case, I was struck by several things about the way my children explored, consumed, and internalized experiences, information, and exhibits during their visit.

First off, you should know that I worked at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History for over four years, so I am very familiar with the museum, its programs, and collections. Also, because the museum is our family favorite, my children have been attending regularly quite literally since they were born. This makes them something nearing age-appropriate experts on the different areas and exhibits at the museum. That said, the girls still delight in picking their journey through the galleries, encountering new finds and old favorites along the way.

Today, as usual, I let them choose our route through the museum, starting in Kahn Hall with the traveling exhibition Wild Music: Sounds and Songs of Life. This was our first visit to the temporary exhibit, so we were eager to try out the many interactive experiences offered inside. OBSERVATION #1: My kids aren't keen on headphones. I cannot be sure whether this lack of enthusiasm was due to their ages (almost 2 and almost 4), their comfort level with headsets sized for adults, or their frustration with the fact that I couldn't simultaneously hear what they were hearing and therefore couldn't share in their experience. Unlike my children, I recognize the convenience of employing headphones in a large exhibit filled with auditory experiences and the important role they play in reducing ambient noise. However, to all of you exhibit designers out there, remember that wherever you offer one set of headphones, you limit the collaborative group experience and hinder connections between visitors.

I must add that the individual headphone sets in Wild Music were offset by the number of group-friendly listening stations where sound was piped through external speakers. There was even a free-standing jam room where loud sounds could be freely explored and enjoyed by anyone willing to brave the noise.

From Wild Music we traveled downstairs to the Discovery Center where my kids always enjoy hands-on experiences related to content presented throughout the museum. The girls each have their own favorite games, activities, and stations in the "Disco Center," but I was delighted to see that they gravitated toward a few new activities first. OBSERVATION #2: My kids like to play the same games at the museum as they play at home, just in a different context. In the center of one of the child-sized tables was a clear plastic tub filled with common, everyday objects buried in "strata" made of different colored beans, grains, and ground corn cobs. The tub was the centerpiece of an activity illustrating the principles of stratigraphy, historic deposition, and archaeological discovery. Cards were stationed around the table inviting children (and adults) to conduct an "I spy" type scavenger hunt for objects buried in the tub, asking them to determine which objects were the oldest, and even encouraging them to draw conclusions from the items they observed. My kids loved this game! We regularly play "I spy" in the car, and my eldest daughter's favorite library books are from the I Spy series. Since the staff very thoughtfully used photos of the objects on the cards instead of a list of words, both of my nonreaders were able to participate equally in the hunt.

Another new activity stationed nearby the archaeology tub was a pottery reconstruction puzzle. Two foam plates were covered in some unknown durable coating (I couldn't figure out what it was, but it worked well), then painted to look like terra cotta. One plate was the sample form, and the other was broken into potsherds, which children could reassemble to reconstruct the "ancient" vessel. Both of my girls are puzzle nuts, so this activity was almost as popular with them as the pre-existing dinosaur and human body puzzles they enjoy on every visit to the Disco Center. I love puzzles too, and this simple activity was proof positive that you don't have to spend a lot of money to create a fun and valuable learning opportunity. Be creative!

When we finished playing in the Discovery Center, it was time for lunch, so we headed to The Blue Planet Cafe. OBSERVATION #3: Moms are happiest when there are healthy choices on the menu for everyone in the family. I'm pleased to report that not only was the food in the museum's cafe tasty and pretty healthy, but it was also very reasonably priced and amply portioned for sharing. I bought lunch for all three of us for less than $10. Not too shabby, and when when mama's happy... Well, you know the rest.

Old Bear at the entrance to the Perkins Wildlife Center & Woods Garden.
The second half of our visit involved visiting the natural history museum hot spots, namely the dinosaur hall and the outdoor wildlife center. Like most other toddlers and preschoolers, my daughters are big fans of cuddly little animals, and extinct megafauna, so these two areas of the museum are guaranteed winners. Generally, just strolling past the eagles, bobcats, and raccoons on our way back to the otter pond is enough to start them squealing with excitement. Unfortunately, we hit the animals at nap time today, so many of the more charismatic wildlife residents were tucked away in corners snoozing. Fortunately, the dinosaurs in the hall of prehistoric life always show up, and of course today was no exception.

Artfully mounted Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops horridus fossil casts appear engaged in a battle for the ages and dominate the center of the hall. These guys are show-stoppers, and on most of our visits a couple of spins around the perimeter provide ample stimulation without much interpretation, but today was different. OBSERVATION #4: My preschooler is now really interested in computer interactives. Touchscreens located at staggered positions around the T. rex display have been there since it was installed two years ago, but Nora never paid any real attention to them, until today. Perhaps now, after a year of preschool, and less than a month from her fourth birthday, she is ready to be more in control of how she consumes information in the exhibits? Or, perhaps she's only just grown tall enough to see the screen on her own. Whatever the reason, she couldn't get enough of diving a little deeper into the details. There was only one problem, all of the juicy details needed to be read aloud to her, as she is still a couple of years away from reading them on her own.

Are you developing an interactive program for your next exhibit? Consider adding a game-track for preschoolers and early readers, replacing written text with audio and pictures. After all, why go to the trouble and expense of producing a computer program full of type, when you could just add another text panel for a fraction of the cost? Get the most bang for your bucks; make sure your interactive is truly interactive, and also appropriate for multiple age groups.

It's common knowledge that if you want to gain valuable insight about how your programs and exhibits are (or are not) reaching your visitors you should walk the floors with a couple members of your target audience. Sure it's common knowledge, but with endless meetings, special projects, and new initiatives, it is hard to make it a common practice. Do your museum a favor and schedule some time this week to tag along on a tour, or take a casual stroll through the galleries. You may be surprised at what you observe and learn in those halls you have walked so many times before.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Voices of the Past audio podcast: the role of museums on the social web

As promised, here is a link to the audio podcast of the Voices of the Past  interview I did last month. Voices of the Past advocates for heritage resources via new media and the web. Bethany Frank interviewed me about how I use social media to advocate for museums and cultural organizations, and what I do to help them reach out and engage audiences in new and meaningful ways. Tune in to learn more about how your museum can build its online presence and make the most of your social media efforts.

Currently, only the audio version of the interview is available online, but when the webcast goes live I will provide a link.

Warning: tonight I am heartsick, and I'm climbing a soapbox

Although not specifically related to museums in any way, you may file this post under observations on our current cultural landscape. Forgive me my soapbox, I've grown accustomed to employing it when I feel like the world has gone completely crazy.

Heartsick. That's what I am. Heartsick about this entire “Ground Zero mosque” situation, its contrived political importance and the senselessness of turning the Muslim equivalent of a YMCA into an ugly national debate.

Lately, I am reminded of the first time I stood at the gates of the monument at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. I was 15 and couldn't shake the overwhelming feeling of guilt and shame born of knowing that people who looked like me had committed a brutal massacre on that ground simply because they could not understand someone else's way of life. Instead, the white cavalry chose to see the Lakota only as other than themselves, un-American, ungodly, and undeserving of sympathy, or respect. Wounded Knee was a desolate, haunting place. It was horrible. I have never forgotten how heartsick I was that day, and I believe I am a better person for it.

Today, I am sorry that people who think they share my faith are seeing our Muslim neighbors as "others," spreading hatred instead of compassion and understanding. Truly these people do not know my God. I am sorry that along with losing their common sense, many Americans have lost any sense of the history of the terrible atrocities committed against marginalized peoples in the past, how each act began with small, but purposeful steps toward setting these groups apart from the powerful majority. The examples are too numerous, the parallels so obvious, and yet many of our citizens have been stirred up by so-called leaders and are choosing to ignore the sad legacy of intolerance, racism, and hatred. They are choosing not to remember. It has been said that when a totalitarian government comes into power the historians are always the first ones to disappear, now I know why.

Tonight, I pray for the safety and well-being of my Muslim friends and their families. I also pray for the rest of my fellow Americans, that we may come to deserve the birthright of freedom our forbears paid for with their own blood-- the same freedom that our men and women in uniform are fighting and dying to protect. As a child at a Christian church camp I stood hand in hand around a flagpole with other little girls and boys who looked like me, and together we sang, "Long may our land be bright with freedom's holy light, protect us by thy might, great God our king." Our fathers' God, author of liberty, please let it be so for all Americans.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Rock Hall receives $5M endowment gift from NYC foundation

In yesterday's Plain Dealer, John Soeder reported on the five million dollar gift from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation based in New York City. The funds, raised through concerts by hall of fame musicians given in New York City last fall, are intended to begin a endowment for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum located in downtown Cleveland. Since its opening in 1995, the museum has operated without an endowment.

Use the link below to read the full article and learn more about the Museum's new endowment.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum creates $5 million endowment with proceeds from all-star concerts

Monday, August 16, 2010

MuseoBlogger gets a makeover

For any regular readers out there who check in today and think you've landed on the wrong site, this is still the same MuseoBlogger, just with a fresh new face. The last time I updated the overall look of this blog was well over a year ago, when Blogger's template designs were very basic and difficult to personalize. Now, with the release of their new template designer, I was able to customize the color scheme and imagery to something I found more compelling than the tired teal and green format I had before. Besides, like so many other women out there, frankly I was bored with looking at the same old thing every day. I wanted to dress the MuseoBlogger site in something new so, I found this really cool photo of an exotic decorative object and used it to inspire a new palette and give this site a makeover. I hope you like it.

Coming soon, my article on hospitals and the role of fine arts in promoting wellness. Also, links to a web interview I did last month with Voices of the Past Heritage Media should appear here on MuseoBlogger in the near future.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Need some tips for embracing social media? Check out Jeff Guin's blog

Last Friday night I attended the Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinee's Dinner in Canton, Ohio, and as it turned out, one of the guests at our table was a woman who serves as the volunteer director of a nonprofit that teaches traffic safety to children. We talked at length about her organization, entirely run by volunteers, and their desire to embrace the wave of new media to better promote ongoing programming and reach an ever-changing audience of parents and their young children. She had already reached out to a local college for an intern to help them handle day-to-day posting beginning this fall. We discussed the merits of this initial set-up, along with some pitfalls to avoid, and by the end of our conversation she seemed encouraged by the potential of developing a well-conceived social media plan, and ready to embark on that task.

Launching a social media initiative can be as nerve-wracking as any other new and unfamiliar program undertaken by a lean organization of well-meaning, but unconfident staff. This particular nonprofit leader had done her homework and needed only a few pointers to reassure her that she and her organization were on the right track. Regardless of whether your staff are full-time professionals, or part-time volunteers, the proper amount of preliminary planning will make a huge difference in the roll-out of your social media campaign. So, where to begin?

Several months ago Jeff Guin tackled this very issue in his blog for Voices of the Past Heritage Media, specifically addressing the needs of heritage organizations. Jeff's post from March 31, 2010, Social Media Planning for Heritage Organizations: Differentiating Goals, Objectives & Tactics, is an excellent primer for those who are considering swimming in the social media pool. If your organization has yet to undertake the seemingly daunting task of developing a social media plan, or you have tried social media, but are frustrated by the difficult task of measuring your success, check out Jeff's article for a common sense approach to planning the application of 21st century media in your PR portfolio.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Wordle word cloud celebrates 100th post

In honor of my 100th MuseoBlogger post, I created this word cloud using my blog feed and the Wordle program. To make your own word cloud, visit

Thank you so much for following my musings on museums and the cultural landscape. I promise to keep improving the quality of the content you find here as I head toward my next 100 posts.

Coming soon to MuseoBlogger, an examination of the increasingly important role of hospitals as collectors and exhibitors of fine art, as well as a series of guest posts from the students in my exhibit development and design class at Walsh University. My students will also be posting to their own museum-related blogs throughout the upcoming semester, and I will post links to those sites when we have them up and running.

Thanks again for your interest!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

USS Midway Museum's family audio guide sticks with visitors

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of spending two days aboard the USS Midway Museum in San Diego. As part of my preparation for an exhibit evaluation project, I spent almost four hours taking the audio guided tour of the entire ship in order to gain the valuable perspective of an uninitiated first-time visitor. Upon receiving my headset I was told about the brand new family audio tour, which debuted at the Museum just a few weeks prior to my visit. I expressed a particular interest in this tour, which was developed specifically to engage kids and adults simultaneously, and the docent explained that I was welcome to sample the new guide along my journey whenever I encountered a green numbered audio stop.

I began my tour as many adult visitors would, typing in the appropriate yellow numbers and receiving the carefully crafted and duly informative messages aimed at a mature museum audience. However, after listening to only three of the stops on the family tour, I found myself typing in the green numbers first at combined stops, postponing the adult tour, and listening to it as I made way along the passageway to the next stop. What was the significant difference, and why were the family stops so much more compelling to me?

In essence the strength of the new family audio tour lies in several key principles I believe are critical for any successful museum narrative:
  1. Keep it short: most of the family tour recordings seemed to last less than a minute and a half.
  2. Make it personal: a friendly sailor character personified the experience, developing a familiar rapport between the visitor and the guide, while also allowing an insider's look at life onboard the Midway.
  3. Make it authentic: appropriate sound effects, attention to subtleties, and little details described in intimate spaces piqued the visitor's interest and instilled a desire for more.
  4. Don't get too technical: the emphasis was on how men lived and worked aboard the Midway, and the importance of that work, not on the specifics of how the work was accomplished.
  5. Less is usually more: with markedly fewer stops along the tour, the visitor did not grow as overwhelmed by infinite details, instead the pace was steady, but manageable.
The USS Midway's new family tour works because visitors are treated to a first-hand accounting of the history of the ship, but are not expected to disembark as experts. The pressure to retain great amounts of information is replaced by a casual initiation into the ranks of those who served. Looking back on my experience, I find that I can easily recall numerous memorable stops on the family tour and convey the significant take-away message from each, but I have only a few such take-aways remaining from the adult tour. It was too much information, delivered in rapid-fire succession and unfortunately not as much of it stuck.

In relating my experience with the tour audio guides onboard the Midway, I am reminded of the keynote address delivered this past May by Susie Wilkening of Reach Advisors at the Ohio Museums Association's annual conference. Susie reported initial findings from Reach Advisors' survey of over 40,000 museum-going households across the country. In talking about the most memorable and profound museum experiences described by survey respondents, Susie used the term "sticky." The longest-lasting museum encounters were sticky moments when memories were being formed in the minds of young visitors.

Naturally, most museums want to create opportunities for children and their families to have these sticky experiences together within the context of their own particular content. In my opinion, the USS Midway's new family audio tour creates exactly this kind of sticky opportunity. There is a remarkable space to explore, a personable character guide, and a wealth of history and objects to share. I certainly fall well outside of the seven year-old average age for sticky memory creation, but the Midway Museum's family tour will stick with me for years to come. It will be interesting to see if evaluation of this new educational program identifies the same kind of information retention in other visitors, both kids and adults, but that's a study for another day. Stay tuned.

Catch me on Voices of the Past