May 4, 2015
Special thanks for this guest post to Amy Henderson, National Portrait Gallery’s historian emerita. Amy is a cultural historian specializing in “the lively arts”—particularly media-generated celebrity culture. Her books and exhibitions run the gamut from the pioneers in early broadcasting to Elvis Presley, Katharine Hepburn and Katharine Graham.
In the late 1980s, I met writer-director Garson Kanin at a Washington dinner party, and he set the stage for one of my happiest adventures as a cultural historian at the National Portrait Gallery. When I discovered that Garson, who wrote and directed all of the Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy movies, lived next door to Herself in New York, I whined until he promised to give me her address. My excuse? The Portrait Gallery needed a fine portrait of the iconic actress!
Garson’s introduction worked, and I got to know Miss Hepburn in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. I would have coffee and cookies with her when I traveled to New York, and we always went on an exploration of all the portraits she kept in her townhouse; there were a lot, since she had known artists her entire life.
She mentioned “all the costumes” on the upper floor, but I never got a glimpse. Now, thanks to the Durham Museum in Omaha, the costumes are on full view. “Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen” is drawn from the Kent State Museum’s Hepburn Costume Collection, and features more than 35 costumes worn in 21 films and 6 stage productions—and some of her private life clothes.
Mick Hale, Director of Education at the Durham, heard that I had curated a 2007 Portrait Gallery exhibition celebrating Hepburn’s centennial, and invited me to speak about her life in conjunction with the Durham’s costume show. I eagerly accepted, and spoke at this Smithsonian Affiliate in April. Talking about her life, I focused mainly on Hepburn’s remarkable ability to fashion her own image, even in the heyday of the Hollywood studio system when studios configured their stars to reflect their own particular movie “brand.” E.g., Warner Bros. had a “Murderers’ Row” of gangsters, while MGM boasted “all the stars in the heavens.”
The Durham has been a Smithsonian Affiliate since 2002, and Mick Hale estimates that they have hosted 25 or so traveling exhibitions such as the Hepburn costumes. Other recent speakers have included Mike Neufeld from the National Air and Space Museum, who spoke about the Apollo 8 mission during the Durham’s “1968” exhibition; and Smithsonian Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture, Richard Kurin, who shared his stories about 101 Smithsonian artifacts last Fall when the Durham hosted the Franklin Institute’s traveling exhibit “Identity: An Exhibition of You.”
My visit was enormous fun. First, the museum itself is lodged in what had been a stunning Art Deco train station that opened in 1931; lofty ceilings and a sense of bustle create an instantly uplifting “wow” museum experience. Second, for me it was great to see the costumes Hepburn wore during her long stage and screen career. Her waist was TINY—20”—and it was fascinating to see costumes from such landmark performances as the Broadway version of the Philadelphia Story. I also lingered over the section that spotlighted her impeccably tailored tan slacks, of which she had dozens.
My visit came at the end of Mick Hale’s tenure as education director at the Durham. After ten years, he is heading toward new challenges, directing a leadership initiative in Lincoln. But his dynamic partnership with the Smithsonian will remain firmly rooted at the Durham. “The museum and I are very proud of what we have done with the Smithsonian,” he told me, “and I know the quality work and collaboration will continue for a long time.”
All photos courtesy of the Durham Museum.
April 17, 2015
The first rule of the Museums and the Web conference—it’s not about the conference. The second rule—meet somebody. What better way start to a conference dedicated to sharing ideas about digital experiences in museums than reinforcing the idea to just get together and share!
The #MW2015 conference kicks off at the Palmer House in Chicago.
I had the opportunity to attend the #MW2015 Conference in Chicago this year representing team Smithsonian Affiliations. As a “first timer” we were given ten guidelines for getting the most out of the meeting. The top five were:
4. Session hop
3. Check out the exhibit hall
2. Meet a new friend
1. Remember- it’s not about the conference!
We all know attending conferences is all about the networking. But here, bouncing ideas off of people is an even bigger priority. It’s even encouraged to skip a session if you are deep in conversation and learning something new. Skip a session? Outrageous, right?!! Not here. The power of collaboration and sharing ideas is key to the experience. Web developers, content managers, museum educators and museum curators all coming together to puzzle out this question of integrating digital into the museum experience. This would be an epic blog if I listed all of the amazing things I took away from the conference, so I’ll just provide some highlights. Bottom line- If you are interested at all in increasing content and engagement online and in person, and you’re interested in meeting some really cool people, this is a really incredible meeting.
My favorite takeaways:
- We are all built to learn things through stories. Not all stories are good stories, but those that are help direct your attention and ask questions and reflect on our lives and others lives. Empowering our whole team to see themselves as storytellers is important. It’s not chronology that is being sought but building connections from overlapping paths. From The Whole Story, and Then Some: ‘Digital Storytelling’ in Evolving Museum Practice
- “Place” remains a key part of identity creation and community building within digital culture. Location is not place. Museums positioning themselves in the center of supporting communities are creating a greater sense of place. Connecting audiences with place values creates more engaged communities. From Beyond the Building: Creating and Supporting Communities Based on Place
- Cultural organizations in change are fertile spaces for critical shifts in their digital work. When considering change: Don’t be afraid to lose some things for the better of the organization. The most interesting digital storytellers will likely NOT be in your digital team. There needs to be a clear project manager—the person who “owns” the project cannot “run” the project because they are too invested. KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE. Include ALL departments and have conversations about important changes. From Organising for Change and Change in Organisations
All-in-all it was an amazing experience. I look forward to using some of these ideas and inspiring change in my organization. Were you at #MW2015? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!
That’s me in the background experiencing a wind vortex at the Museum of Science and Industry. Can’t all be serious business, right?!
November 25, 2014
#FindingNEMA – the adorable Boston Terrier mascot for the conference.
The New England Museum Association conference is one of my favorite events of the year. It always takes place in November – when the air is crisp and Thanksgiving is right around the corner. What could be a better time to visit New England?
This year’s conference took place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was the biggest to date with about 1100 participants. Even with that number, the conference feels intimate, and I was so delighted to run into so many Affiliate colleagues during the week. The theme of this year’s conference was Health and Wellness – so appropriate as museums play such a critical role in the health of their communities.
The keynote panel set the tone for the week. The panel brought together three local museum directors and two physicians, an interesting mashup that revealed all the ways that museums heal people and communities. They talked about museums being among the most trusted community resources, and places of respite and beauty, which is why people tend to flock to cultural institutions in times of crisis. The doctors for example, discussed the importance of careful looking when making a diagnosis – a skill they teach in part by taking students to museums. What a great discussion.
A colleague from the Abbe Museum looks through “the Great Refractor” telescope at SAO.
Looking directly at the Sun.. or live images of it anyway, at SAO.
A few Affiliate colleagues and I got an opportunity to hang out at an amazing research center near the hotel, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory [SAO]. There, a Smithsonian educator showed us the Great Refractor, built in 1847 and once the largest telescope in the United States. We all got the chance to try out the unique seat designed for looking through the telescope, an elegant 19th century solution. From the old to the new, we then visited SAO’s state-of-the art control room for studying the Sun, and “saw” it at several different temperature iterations in close to real time. It was beautiful and flaring in a way we’d never seen before.
Conference attendees also had the great fortune to visit the USS Constitution Museum for an evening reception. The Museum, an Affiliate since 2011, is a trailblazer in terms of research into family learning. They have already published the Family Learning Forum website based on research and testing on engaging exhibition techniques. The Museum is now turning its attention to programming with the same vigor, and funds from an IMLS National Leadership Grant. One
Which role would you play? Learning the importance of teamwork at the USS Constitution Museum.
of the activities under testing asks visitors to be part of a 4-person team required to fire cannons from the USS Constitution ship, a much more difficult process than I imagined. With a blue tarp as the ocean and a print of an enemy ship on the other side, my team fired an “alka seltzer cannon” and learned about the teamwork required to be successful in those conditions. The Museum staff is refining a body of knowledge about family learning and best practices that will ultimately and undoubtedly benefit the entire museum field.
On the last day of the conference, I was honored to speak in a session with colleagues from our other New England Affiliates, Mystic Seaport and Plimoth Plantation. Titled, It CAN be all Fun and Games, we looked at Affiliate examples of incorporating games and physical activity into museum interpretation. The best part was that the directors of interpretation and education from Mystic and Plimoth brought actual games that they play on their 17th and 19th century living history sites, like skittles, Wampanoag football, stoolball, stilts, hoop games, harpoon throwing, marbles and even stilts. I was a little anxious that audience members might not want to “play” on the last day of the conference.. but I was wrong. It reminded me of an important lesson – adults also want to play and have fun like kids do. Give them an opportunity – at a conference or at a museum – and they will literally run with it.
This game from 17th century Plimoth is harder than it seems!
I attended so many useful sessions and heard so many great ideas. Here’s a quick roundup of the highlights:
• Think socially responsible or responsive programming might introduce mission creep at your museum? But what if your mission wandered into a place that made you more relevant to your community?
• Think it’s hard to engage millennials (ages 21-40)? Think again. They are visiting cultural institutions in droves, and there are about 80 million of them in America right now. Don’t know how? It’s easy. Ask them. And then empower them to create the programming they want to attend at your museum themselves. For a great example, check out the Portland Museum of Art’s Contemporaries group.
• Do your public spaces achieve the magic power of 10? That is, can people find 10 things to do in your plazas, courtyards, front steps, etc.? (eat, people watch, see a performance, access wifi, meet friends, etc.) For ideas, check out the Peabody Essex Museum.
• Attending a conference is a great opportunity for a networking game. It’s super fun when it’s easy and for example, on your cell phone. The one we played at NEMA had us asking questions of each other like “have you ever lived abroad?” and snapping photos for extra points. Thanks Museum Trek.
Given the breadth, depth and richness of the conversations I attended last week, it’s abundantly clear that the museum community in New England is very healthy, and helping to make their communities amazing places to live. A big thanks to the small but mighty staff at the New England Museum Association for bringing us together and expertly facilitating such enriching dialogue. And Happy Thanksgiving to all!
October 14, 2014
On the road in sunny California!
Three and a half days, 559 miles and visits to eight Smithsonian Affiliates in southern California, only just begins to describe my recent trip to the west coast. I had traveled to Los Angeles to attend the opening event for Cahuilla Continuum: Túku, Ívax, Túleka, the Riverside Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition telling the story of a Southern California Native people, the Cahuilla. This gave me the welcome opportunity of visiting the Smithsonian Affiliates in and surrounding Los Angeles. The following is a recap of my whirlwind tour.
I should start by saying that with 23 Smithsonian Affiliates, California has more Smithsonian Affiliates than any other state in the union. Most states have three or four (and we have yet to Affiliate with a few states) but the diversity of California’s cultural landscape is certainly well represented in our west coast partners.
Cerritos Library, is a library (and Smithsonian Affiliate) like few others. There is an aquarium, reading labs, exhibition spaces and an art collection. It was terrific to see the community using this resource so thoroughly.
The garden at LA Plaza through the grey metal gates.
On day 2, I visited LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a wonderful space in a historic building- often so rare in the west. The garden takes advantage of the hot California sun to teach students about nutrition and agriculture.
The Apollo Boilerplate at Columbia Memorial Space Center, on loan from the National Air and Space Museum.
In the afternoon, I visited the Columbia Memorial Space Center, home to an Apollo “Boilerplate,” on loan from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Then I headed towards northeast toward Alta Loma to visit one of our newest Smithsonian Affiliates, the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation for Arts and Crafts. The visit to this woodworker artist’s home gave me a better understanding of the huge impact his work has had in the art world.
Here I am in a Sam Maloof chair.
The next day, my morning began with a visit to a school on an Indian reservation; the Riverside Metropolitan Museum had brought two scholars from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian as part of their annual Smithsonian Week in Riverside. The students asked great questions and shared their own experiences with the visitors from DC. We stopped in at the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum in Palm Springs, also a Smithsonian Affiliate, to see their latest exhibition, Through You, Our Ancient Leaders, We Became: Birth of the Agua Caliente Band.
Michael Hammond, Director of Agua Caliente Cultural Museum and Sarah Mundy, Director of Riverside Metropolitan Museum in front of the display case holding the artifacts on loan from the National Museum of the American Indian.
On the last day of my visit I
Students explore study collections after Jill Norwood and Emil Her Many Horses from the National Museum of the American Indian spoke to students during Smithsonian Week in Riverside.
stopped in on two Affiliates: Millard Sheets Art Center in Pomona and the Western Science Center in Hemet, both doing great work connecting their communities with educational resources. I ended my day with the event that had brought me to California: the Riverside Metropolitan Museum was celebrating the opening of their Cahuilla Continuum exhibition, which included three artifacts from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. They were deservedly proud of their work and we were proud of the wonderful partnership between Riverside (and all of the terrific Affiliates in California) and the Smithsonian.
October 9, 2014
Road Report- Harold, October 8, 2014
Houston, we have liftoff!
The first thing you see when you pull into the parking lot of Space Center Houston is a full-scale space shuttle replica perched upon a NASA 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. It’s a neck-stretching sight, and an awesome introduction to the many wonders of our new Smithsonian Affiliate.
Space shuttle replica atop a NASA shuttle carrier
Opened in 1992, Space Center Houston boggles your brain, tugs at your heart, and sparks your imagination at every turn – it’s the story of spaceflight under one (very large) roof, with many more roofs (and displays) next door at the Johnson Space Center.
Richard Allen, Chief Executive Officer, Space Center Houston, in front of Mercury Space Capsule on loan from the National Air and Space Museum.
Richard Allen, Space Center Houston chief executive officer, and his hard working staff have created a diverse array of engaging experiences – large-format film theaters, interactive spaces for children of all ages, demonstration stages led by knowledgeable and enthusiastic interpreters, and dramatically lit exhibitions that tell the inspiring history of the U.S. space program – its triumphs, tragedies, and enduring influence on our dreams of the future.
Mars Rover prototype on loan from NASM.
Of course, it was a pleasure to see so many artifacts on loan from our National Air and Space Museum (NASM), employed to give an accurate and detailed rendering of the history of spaceflight – command modules like the “Faith 7” Mercury capsule, Gemini 5 and Apollo 17, spacesuits worn by astronauts Michael Collins, Pete Conrad and “Wally” Schirra, a walkthrough Skylab, and a Mars rover prototype – to name just a few. If you take the tour of the Johnson Space Center, you’ll also see a lovingly restored Saturn V Rocket, also on loan from NASM, displayed horizontally in a building nearly 400 feet long. The thought of sitting atop this engineering marvel, waiting to be propelled to the moon, sends shivers down your spine.
Richard Allen and Meg Naumann, Director of Development, in front of the Saturn V rocket, also on loan from NASM.
There’s never enough time to see everything going on at an Affiliate museum or to meet all of the incredible folks who make it happen – staff, volunteers, and supporters – but after a day-and-a half in San Antonio, at The Witte Museum and the UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures, and six hours at Space Center Houston, I came away with the distinct impression that “The Lone Star State” has a lot more than one star in its firmament. We are honored that so many Texas luminaries populate our galaxy of Smithsonian Affiliates.
Catch up on Harold’s Witte Museum blog here.
Smithsonian Affiliations thanks guest author Tim Grove, Chief of Museum Learning at the National Air and Space Museum for this post, and for his support of Affiliates!
I recently had an incredible visit to the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine’s only Smithsonian Affiliate. I’ve been going on vacation to Mount Desert Island for a number of years and had been encouraging my friend, Cinnamon Catlin-Leguko, President and CEO of the Abbe, to consider the Affiliates program. The Abbe’s collection and mission focuses on the Wabanaki nations and the affiliations program seemed a good fit.
A unique birch bark canoe at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine
On my visit to the Abbe last year, I was happy to see the new Smithsonian Affiliate flag flying out front. I was also intrigued to watch master canoe builder David Moses Bridges (Passamaquoddy) building a 14’ traditional birchbark canoe in the Wabanaki style. It was thought to be the first time in one hundred years that a traditional native canoe had been constructed on the island. Museum visitors could observe the process and learn about the skills involved. (Click here to see images of building the canoe.) After 200 hours of gathering and processing materials and 500 hours of building time, the work of art was completed. The Abbe staff officially launched the canoe last September and it became part of the museum’s teaching collection. In a new educational program, students could learn about traditional native craftsmanship and ingenuity.
This year on my return to the island, Cinnamon invited me to talk about my new book, A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History. It’s an eclectic look at some of the projects I’ve worked on during a career at some of America’s most popular history museums, including three Smithsonian museums. I used to manage the National Museum of American History’s Hands On History Room and am an experiential learner. The book is filled with examples of my hands-on adventures.
So, guess what I really wanted to do? Go for a paddle! Abbe educator George Neptune and his cousin, canoe builder David Bridges, graciously agreed to facilitate my wish. The canoe had never been on the ocean before. They brought the canoe to a dock on Somes Sound (“Pihcicihciqipisipiqe” in the Passamaquoddy language!) a long sliver of ocean slicing the island almost in two. The canoe only weighs 52 lbs. out of the water, but in the water is designed to carry 700-800 lbs of supplies. First David and I took it for a ride and then David let me go solo.
Smithsonian educator Tim Grove paddles in the Abbe Museum’s homemade canoe in Maine.
As I glided through the water I marveled at the ease of travel, while trying to stay low and maintain balance. I wasn’t used to sitting on my knees to paddle. The gray sky and placid water were perfect conditions for this new hands-on history opportunity.
I shared some of my history stories a few nights later at the museum. I talked about my experiences on the Lewis and Clark trail with native teachers, of the challenges of telling Shoshone Indian Sacagawea’s story, and of the incredible insight that tribal advisors offered about pipe ceremonies and other native customs. I shared my favorite story about the corn mill and the Mandans and cultural misinterpretation. And, Cinnamon interviewed me about working at a national museum. The audience asked fascinating questions and once again, I realized how much fun I’ve had on my history adventures.
Affiliates, if you would like to bring Tim to your museum to talk about his book and hands-on history experiences, please contact your National Outreach Manager.
A quintessential shot of the great state of Maine!
October 8, 2014
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I had the pleasure of announcing our new Affiliation with The Witte Museum in San Antonio on October 7, 2014. By coincidence The Witte was also celebrating its 88th birthday, so it was a double pleasure. Marise McDermott, President and CEO presided over the announcement ceremony which included San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor and City Council member Keith Toney. Kind words were spread all around; as always I was humbled and honored to represent the Smithsonian.
San Antonio River runs by the Witte Museum, creating a 13 mile trail from Breckenridge Park to downtown.
I met many wonderful people at the Witte and discovered interesting connections between the Witte and the Smithsonian, especially in the field of paleontology and archaeology. Dinosaurs once ruled south Texas, and Witte Museum Curator of Paleontology and Geology, Thomas Adams, Ph.D., is literally hot on their trail – uncovering dino tracks and other significant fossil remains. Harry Shafer, Ph.D, Witte Museum Curator of Archeology, Professor Emeritus at Texas A&M University, has been studying rock art along the lower Pecos River, among the most sophisticated finds in North America.
San Antonio’s Chili Queens are alive and well (and widely appreciated) at the Witte Museum.
The Smithsonian has many long-term interests in San Antonio. The Smithsonian American Art Museum includes works by artists, Jesse Trevino and Mel Casas; Smithsonian Folkways documents the musical heritage of San Antonio, from legendary corrido singer Lydia Mendoza to Grammy Award winning Los Texmaniacs; and the Smithsonian Magazine recently paid tribute to San Antonio’s fabulous Chili Queens, 19th century food entrepreneurs who helped make the taco the world’s favorite meal.
The new South Texas Heritage Center at the Witte Museum — a taste of more to come.
There’s a lot going on at the Witte on which to build our partnership and more to come when the museum completes Phase II of its grand expansion project in 2017.
Angelica Docog and Aaron Parks of the UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures, our other Affiliate in San Antonio, joined the festivities and then brought me back to see an amazing exhibit on Texas Quilts on display in their facility in Hemisphere Park. We talked about several new exhibits they are planning to install including one on Sikh history and culture from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Angelica filled me in on the success of their Smithsonian Youth Access Grant, Young Historians/Living Histories and how it helped the Institute build bridges to San Antonio’s Korean community.
What would a Texas be without a long-horned steer? This might be one of the longest long-horns.
One cannot visit San Antonio without feeling a sense of vibrancy – a growing city with a strong economy, a major convention and tourist destination, a proud history and a bright future. How wonderful to see our Affiliate colleagues leading the charge.
Tomorrow, I get to announce another new Affiliate – Space Center Houston. It’s a good week for lifting off!