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
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!
October 6, 2014
Smithsonian Affiliations would like to thank Kate Preissler, Digital Media Marketing Manager at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, for this guest post.
On October 11, the Berkshire Museum will become the fourth museum in the nation to host Spark!Lab, an exhibition developed at the Smithsonian Institution by the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the National Museum of American History (NMAH). By opening Spark!Lab we are joining with the Smithsonian in a nation-wide initiative to engage young people in acts of invention.
Staff at the Berkshire Museum get a chance to test out the Spark!Lab activities during a special training with Lemelson Center colleagues.
To prepare, colleagues from the Lemelson Center in Washington D.C. joined the Berkshire Museum staff for several days of training. A significant portion of the training had our staff trying out the activities that will be available in Spark!Lab. These activities, primarily engineering and design challenges, pose problems from the real world for visitors to solve. There are no right or wrong answers to Spark!Lab’s challenges; you may invent a solution that is completely different from my solution, yet we have both succeeded by solving the problem. These activities show young people that every brain is capable of creating something totally new and that by coming up with new ideas, we can make the world a better place for ourselves and each other.
As we tried out wind tunnels and tipping tables, it occurred to me that everyone, not just young people, probably craves opportunities to be inventive all the time. Individuals from all departments– marketing, security, visitor’s services, education – became deeply absorbed in the challenges presented. The mood in the room ran the gamut from laughter during experimentation to intense concentration on final designs, and many people had to be torn from the stations when it was time to move on. When we tested the activities with kids, the results were the same – no one wanted to leave!
The author can’t look at her desk anymore without seeing all of the inventions that people devised to make life easier.
Until I encountered Spark!Lab and the Lemelson Center, ‘inventive creativity,’ especially as a skill set that could be learned, practiced, and honed, was not an idea to which I had given a lot of thought. So although learning about the activities and understanding what will be physically happening in our new space was valuable, it was the other aspects of our training that helped me to really understand the potential that Spark!Lab holds for altering perceptions and empowering the young people who visit the Museum.
During training we learned about many different inventors; inventions which have changed the course of history; and inventions which have made our lives a little easier in subtle ways. I spent the next few weeks seeing inventions everywhere. For instance, I sat at my desk and couldn’t help but notice that each of the items in front of me represented an idea from an actual person who saw a problem in need of a solution. And I don’t think I was the only one. My colleague Lesley Ann Beck came back to the second half of the training with a story about opening a pizza box and realizing that someone, somewhere, had gotten so frustrated with squished pizza and cheese stuck to lids, that they invented a small, round piece of plastic to keep the box lid from denting in, saving the pizza from damage. Once we started thinking about inventions, we couldn’t stop.
Spark!Lab under construction at the Berkshire Museum – a space which took inventive thinking to develop.
As construction of our Spark!Lab space in the Museum takes shape, this new lens has allowed me to see how our architects and staff have used inventive thinking to create a space that has to adapt to different needs, different audiences, and changing activities. It’s exciting to have a space for Spark!Lab that is the result of the creative inventiveness we’re trying to instill there.
We also had a discussion about ways to reinforce inventive thinking in kids, which gave me the chance to think back to my childhood and especially to my father, who built my sisters and me a workbench and encouraged us to create using wood scraps from his own projects. For years I used a Walkman held together by a wood nail because he loved to fix things instead of throwing them out. I thought about the pulley system he had rigged for our birdfeeder, which made it easy to fill but hard for squirrels to get to. I realized that my dad is one of those people who travels through the world with the eyes of an inventor. I also realized that not everyone has a person in his or her life to model and encourage these traits – but that by opening this space and staffing it with trained facilitators, our Museum could play that role for many.
You might now be asking, what do you mean when you say “the eyes of an inventor”? In the training, I wondered that too, and for me the best answer came from one of our facilitators, Michelle DelCarlo, Spark!Lab National Network Manager. She described inventors as people who encounter a problem and react by thinking “I can make this better.” With the mindset of an empowered inventor, problems become sources of motivation, not roadblocks or excuses to give up. So with that thought, I can’t wait to be a part of Spark!Lab because, really, what a wonderful world we could live in if each of us approached our days with inventors’ brains – not just seeing the problems, but feeling confident in our ability to solve them.
Spark!Lab will provide a space for young people in the Museum’s community to think like inventors.
October 4, 2014
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We’ve all had this experience right? You have a favorite museum that you visit all the time. Then one day, you hear from staff about all the behind-the-scenes work they did to bring something amazing to the museum floor, and you gain a whole new perspective and appreciation of their work.
I had this delightful experience this week. Being from Colorado, I’ve visited the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (DMNS) many times with my family growing up. But I was fortunate to attend one day of the Mountain Plains Museum Association (MPMA) Conference in Aspen this week, and heard two staff from DMNS talk about two very different programs that revealed another dimension of their contributions to the community.
Kirk Johnson, former chief curator (and now director of the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian) gave the keynote talk at the MPMA Conference about their Snowmastodon Project, a massive and utterly unique discovery of Ice Age fossils at Ziegler Reservoir near Snowmass Village in the Colorado Rockies.
National Museum of Natural History director Kirk Johnson, digging for mastodon bones in Colorado.
In 2010, a bulldozer driver working on an expansion of the Reservoir uncovered bones of a juvenile mammoth. Years later, having tapped an army of volunteers including local school teachers from the Aspen area and world-renowned Ice Age scientists, the Museum recovered over 6000 bones from 50 different species from the site including Ice Age horses, a camel, mastodons of all ages, and a giant bison. There are no other comparable sites at this elevation (over 6000 feet), and the diversity of the mammals represented is extraordinary.
The fossils are now cleaned and preserved, and are in top-rate storage or on view for the benefit of scholars and the public. And the finishing touch? Just this week, the Museum installed a 19-foot bronze sculpture of a mastodon (which would have dwarfed a modern-day elephant by the way). Here’s a timelapse video of its installation.
Later in the afternoon, I sat in on an excellent session with Andréa Giron from the Museum’s Visitor Insights Department (and a Affiliations Visiting Professional alumna). Andréa discussed all the ways the Museum has researched its Latino audiences in particular, and the ways they are honing their programming to attract this important audience. Why? Because the Museum wants its visitation to mirror the demographics of its community (as we all do!), and can boast Latino visitation that is slightly higher than the national average as a result of their efforts. Andréa shared some great ideas such as:
Staff makes sure kids feel right at home at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science
1) crowdsource translation of your materials so they actually make sense to your audience. Google Translate just doesn’t capture nuance!
2) Think about your family membership category. Latino audiences in particular tend to visit in multi-generational groups of 6 or more. DMNS created a Family Plus membership to respond.
3) Language can sometimes be a barrier. Andréa surveyed DMNS staff and found a range of Spanish-speakers, including security and facilities staff, who now wear buttons on the floor offering help to visitors in Spanish. (She also found unexpected speakers of Dutch and ASL experts as well!)
I am always inspired by the great work of our Affiliates, especially when I have the privilege to hear it first-hand from the colleagues doing it. Bravo DMNS! Can’t wait to bring my family back on my next visit to Colorado.
Jennifer Brundage is a National Outreach Manager in Smithsonian Affiliations.