Tag: Cultural Heritage

What Museums Can Learn From Hotel Chains

I started off this morning reading Debbie Morrison’s excellent post The End of ‘School’ as Usual . . .  on her blog online learning insights.  The first sentence of her post brought to mind some points I have been thinking about lately.  She wrote “Applying business principles to academia at one time was taboo. Mentioning terms such as return on investment (ROI), customer focus,target market, would be met with blank looks – the deer-in-the-headlights syndrome.”  This got me to thinking about another interesting discussion of late by Suse Cairns at the Museum Geek blog who posted Are We Engaged Yet . . . that takes up the real nuts and bolts behind the concept of what it means to “engage” in our cultural heritage institutions.

As a museum junkie, I reflected how over the past year or so in traveling across North America, I visited about 100 different cultural heritage venues, mostly museums.  In those travels, I stayed in hotels on perhaps 50 evenings.  As a result of those hotel stays, I received follow-up email surveys asking me to rate my experience or join a frequent user club.  However, I don’t recollect ever receiving a follow-up email from a museum asking me to rate my experience or asking for feedback.  I don’t recollect seeing a visitor comment card inside a museum in the past year, but I know they exist.  I am certain some museums do ask for feedback like the hotel chains.  However, that I did not experience a museum request in the past year likely reflects more the norm.

Having written the above, I do not want to suggest that cultural heritage specialists are not interested in what the public wants or needs from the publicly funded institutions. We discuss this issue a lot.  I do think we need to take a different approach toward acquiring that information.  Consider the following examples:

  • Each fall for the past two years at the C.H. Nash Museum, in our weekly meetings with regular staff and graduate assistants from the University of Memphis, we discuss one chapter from Stephanie Weaver’s Creating Great Visitor Experiences.  I really like the way this book with it’s 5-page or so chapters and lots of questions/exercises covers a broad range of topics such as finding your niche as an institution, signage, service, and more – lots of good things to think about.  One of my favorite exercises is a simple SWOT type analysis of listing 10 institutional strengths and weaknesses that the museum has some control over.  Last year, we took a new approach to this listing activity.  Instead of just checking the task off as a weekly book chapter done, we returned in the following weeks to consider how the strengths and weaknesses were addressed by our mission, vision and strategic plan.  We decided to return to the list regularly to see how we were doing.  Were we living into our strengths?  Were we addressing our weaknesses?  But in thinking about two blog posts above, I realize we also need to consider what our visitors think are our greatest strengths and weaknesses.  We will take up that challenge this fall.
  •  Flowing from the above,  as a staff, we spend a good bit of time discussing visitor wants and needs as they relate to our mission.  To that end, in 2011 we conducted an electronic survey of the nearly 2000 subscribers to our monthly e-newsletter, Chucalissa Anoachi.  Despite our staff discussions, the survey revealed several key points that we had never considered. First, 60% of the survey respondents wanted the Museum to develop more programming and activities in our 40 acres of exterior space consisting of prehistoric earthworks and wooded areas.  Second, by the same percentage, respondents wanted us to deliver more of our Museum content online.  Third, 40% of our respondents wanted to have volunteer opportunities they could do from their homes or online.  All three of these responses fall well within our institutional mission and are very doable.  However, none of the areas received priority attention until after we actually asked and heard directly from our visitors.
  • Our Museum is in dire need of updating and revising our 20 – 30-year-old main hall exhibits.  Over the past few years, we worked on a few exhibits as skills and resources were available.  However, we also knew that we needed to stand back and take a look at the total picture of the main hall project.  Based on the success of our e-newsletter survey, as a next step in the upgrade project, we carried out a series of focus groups and interviews with a broad range of our Museum’s constituencies and stakeholders.  We were pleasantly surprised at the results.  Over the next five years, as we work through the upgrade process, we will have greater confidence in meshing visitor needs and wants with our mission.

There are at least two different approaches to engage the visitor.  We can start from our mission and try to sell our vision to the public.  Alternatively, we can first seek out the public vision and mesh that vision with our mission.  As educators, museum professionals, and cultural heritage specialists, we need to abandon the mindset that “if we build it, they will come” if what we build is not relevant to the needs and wants of the public that we serve.

How do you make your institution relevant to the visitors you serve?

Relevance First

Current student-based ceramic vessel exhibit that will be upgraded through additional student-based projects

Be forewarned, I am on a soapbox . . .

Public cultural heritage institutions such as museums and archaeological sites often focus much time and effort on increasing economic revenues.  But the much touted winners of economic revival at venues such as Conner Prairie with a 100 million plus endowment or the Mesa Verde sized operations of the National Park Service are of limited relevance to the majority of small museums or institutions operated with very limited staff or other resources.

In an excellent essay in the recently published Small Museum Toolkit, Volume 1, Steve Friesen (2012:50) notes that these venues ” . . .  are carefully crafted to meet a particular mission and provide a particular service.  They are different from larger museums not so much because of their subject matter but because of how their size enables them to present the subject matter.  They are string quartets, not orchestras.”

The majority of public cultural heritage venues will never break even for operating revenues/expenses.  They will rely on tax base funding, endowments, donations, and volunteers to keep the doors open.  However, cultural heritage institutions can and must show a balance sheet of relevance and value.  Demonstrating relevance and value marks a shift from the 1960s when I participated in the obligatory field trip to the local natural history museum in my hometown.  The expectation of funding and visitors because we are The Museum in town is unreal in today’s climate of economic chaos and a political agenda akin to replaying the Scopes trial over and over.

Our strategy at the C.H. Nash Museum is less to increase revenues, but to be cost-effective in all that we do.  We have also moved from a position of an institution of privilege to an institution of service.  As the University of Memphis (UM) is our governing authority, our Mission Statement includes a statement of relevance and service to that institution.  We ask how can our Museum support faculty/student research and educational opportunities.  When giving a Museum tour, I always note that almost everything the visitor will see that was created in the last five years results from student-based projects.  These projects include our introductory video, medicinal plant sanctuary, programs, exhibit redesign and much more.  For example, three years ago, a graduate assistant worked on the redesign of our ceramic vessel exhibit.  In 2011, each student in the Museum Practices seminar at UM created a “best practices” proposal for another upgrade to the ceramic vessel exhibit.  This fall an intern in the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program will blend together the best aspects of those student proposals into a further upgrade that we intend to last for the next several years.  The redesign of our ceramic vessel exhibit served as the basis for 3 different sets of student projects, and provided 15 students with an applied educational experience.  I believe this method of operation is an example in demonstrating relevance to the educational mission of the University.

I have posted before about our outreach projects relevance to the neighborhood in which our museum is located.

The Participatory Museum, with its many manifestations, is certainly a buzzword today for cultural heritage programs.  But a substantive aspect of that participatory experience is accountability to the public we serve.  In a comment on my blog post last week, Maureen Malloy provided a link to a report on the place of archaeology in the public’s decisions about how they spend their time in outdoor recreation.  The report notes that 20% visit archaeological sites and 45% visit historical sites.  Outdoor walking is a main form of activity.  In last 10 years, photography as an outdoor recreational activity has skyrocketed.  At the C.H. Nash Museum, with our outdoor prehistoric earthwork complex, nature trail, arboretum, medicinal plant sanctuary, and resident wild life, how can we demonstrate our relevance to the shifting trends noted in the report cited by Maureen?  Should we consider visitor-based photo projects such as exhibits, contests, scavenger hunts, earth caches?

Demonstrating such relevance is not the next good gimmick to attract visitors.  Rather, demonstrating relevance is multifaceted.  On the one hand, cultural heritage venues must be accessible, accountable, and in line with the public interests who fund their operation.  At the same time, the cultural heritage venues can tap into that interest to deepen the understanding of the importance, relevance, and value presented and preserved in our cultural heritage institutions.  When both of sides of this equation are aggressively pursued, tax base funding, endowments, donations, and volunteers will follow whether the institution is large or small.

How do you demonstrate the relevance and value of your institution?

Even if the Book is Dead . . . Long Live Reading!

A discussion that occurs with increasing regularity is the need for cultural institutions to be relevant to public they serve.  The discussion considers relevancy of both subject matter and technology.  Conventional wisdom in this area is often based on unsubstantiated assumptions about current and future trends.  As well, I hear the occasional equivalent of holding one’s breath and waiting for the “good old days” return.  I am fond of noting that if one adopts the latter approach, they will die of asphyxiation while waiting.  In today’s cultural heritage institution we question the work we do on a range of fronts – is presentation optimized for public use? is it relevant?

There are a host of excellent resources to help think about these questions.  The Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance publishes a Cultural Engagement Index that explores how Philadelphians in a 20-mile radius of the city center engage in culture.  The Alliance’s survey methodology allowed the inclusion of a representative sample of all Philadelphians.

Here is an item from the Index I found relevant when considering how to present exhibits or programs in a museum or other cultural heritage setting.  In an era where conventional wisdom suggests that books and reading are on their deathbeds, the Index found that 74% of respondents read books for pleasure at least once a month. This statement is at odds with Steve Jobs proclamation that “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore . . . Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”  A post in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog by a Harvard librarian argues against Jobs’ statement.  Futurist Thomas Frey presents a balanced assessment on books as we know them, and how reading will exist in the future.  Frey’s approach and perspective seem the most helpful in charting a course forward on this question.  Frey notes it is not a matter of reading books vs. not reading books.  This goes back to the important point made by Clay Shirkey in his book Cognitive Surplus – the technology does not predict the behavior, rather the technology is a servant to the behavior.  The relevance of all this to cultural heritage professionals is to ask “What technology best suits the public’s demonstrated desire to learn more about the cultural heritage of themselves and others?

Like the Philadelphia Index, there are other useful tools to help move beyond conventional wisdom to evaluate public experiences, perceptions and trends.  A good starting point is the Informalscience.org site has links to evaluation resources.  Another excellent source of survey data on cultural heritage visitors is available from Reach Advisors.  In addition to being a key data resource in publications such as Life Stages of the Museum Visitor, the Reach Advisors blog has a mind-boggling array of cultural heritage venue visitor data.  The Practical Evaluation Guide by Judy Diamond, Jessica Luke and David Uttal is basic and accessible volume on the subject.  Another resource is Reaching and Responding to the Audience, edited by Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko and Stacy Klinger in Volume 4 of the six-volume Small Museum Toolkit published by the American Association of State and Local History through AltaMira Press.

You will notice that the resources I list are more representative of the museum field than archaeology.  This is so because museums, by their very nature, have long been visitor-centered while the very concept of public archaeology was unheard of before the 1970s.  However, as someone with a foot in each field, I find the above references quite useful in both realms.

What resources do you find most helpful in visitor evaluations?

Here is a guest post I contributed over at former C.H. Nash Museum GA Katie Stringer’s blog. Katie is currently working on her PhD in Public History at Middle Tennessee State University. The guest post considers a model for participatory experiences in museums that another former C.H. Nash Museum GA, Natalye Tate and I, recently published in Collections (Vol. 7, Number 3).

Something Old, Something New

By: Dr. Robert Connolly

In a recent issue of the journal Collections (Vol. 7, Number 3, Summer 2011), Natalye Tate and I published an article titled “Volunteers and Collections as Viewed from the Museum Mission Statement.”  Our central thesis is that museums should not view volunteers as folks who do things for which there are not enough staff to complete. Rather, we argue that museums as public institutions should view volunteers as integral to their mission mandates to provide educational and participatory experiences.

We use a scheme presented by Nina Simon in her bookThe Participatory Museum to model Contributory, Collaborative and Co-creative experiences for museum volunteers.  The model is also applicable in the field of public history.

Contributory Experiences are those where the public has very limited input around specific projects that are controlled by the institution. The engagement is generally brief and limited in scope.  Oral history interviews…

View original post 692 more words

The Real in Living History Presentation

Over at the Engaging Places blog this past week, Max A. van Balgooy posted about the initial plans in a “Slave for a Day” program at Hampton, a Maryland plantation dating to the 1700s.  In response to immediate public reaction, the Hampton staff modified the program pretty dramatically.  Max’s post caused me to reflect on living history presentations a bit more.  A couple of years ago in my Museum Practices graduate seminar at the University of Memphis, students discussed the Conner Prairie Follow the North Star activity where visitors take part in a living history program based on enslaved peoples experiences as fugitives seeking their freedom in pre-Civil War United States.

The website of the Organization of American Historians provides a thoughtful review of the North Star program.  A paper by Scott Magelssen published by Project Muse contextualizes the North Star and similar programs within museum studies literature.

According to the Conner Prairie website, participants can:

Become a fugitive slave on the Underground Railroad, fleeing from captivity, risking everything for freedom. What will you experience on your quest for a new life?  Come face-to-face with slave hunters, see fear and hope in the eyes of a fellow runaway and be encouraged by a Quaker family. Truly experience life as a fugitive slave during your journey through one of the most compelling periods in Indiana’s history.


My seminar students reacted to the “become” and “Truly experience” promotion of the 90-minute Follow the North Star program arguing that the statements trivialize slavery. The trivializing noted by my students is reflected by one blogger who wrote:
I wonder if visitors can be whipped, branded, physically disfigured, manacled, or raped and defiled to complete the “historical” experience? Question: who would react more strongly to this live action role playing experience? Young “post-racial” black people or their white peers of the same generational cohort?

The visitor response to the North Star program is varied.  On the Conner Prairie website two student testimonials in the form of written assignments seem to exemplify the desired program goals.  In his paper, Magelssen notes examples of less than desirable visitor behavior to such living history events with examples from both Colonial Williamsburg and Conner Prairie noting:

A group of middle-aged, affluent white men and women on our “Follow the North Star” program were so disrespectful (giggling the whole way through, sassing back to the costumed characters) that the staff recognized our entire experience was compromised, and we were offered the opportunity to go through again.

Conner Prairie has certainly hit on a popular program concept.  Since 1998, 60,000 people have participated in Follow the North Star.  But the “Truly experience life as a fugitive slave” promotion is even countered by an 8th grader’s written testimonial on the Conner Prairie web page in noting “We know at the end of the night we’ll be okay and that no one will actually hurt us.”  Of course, that was not the true experience of fugitive slaves.

To be clear, my point is not about the North Star program content but how Conner Prairie markets or represents that content.  The revised program at Hampton seems to address this issue – that is, no you can’t really be or truly experience that specific “peculiar institution” today – but let me tell you about it.  The revised Hampton program seems a considerably more accurate/educational depiction of the lives of enslaved peoples than my experience of plantation tours along the West Bank between New Orleans and Baton Rouge where the visitors were told how the pre-Civil War master at that particular plantation was exceptional in his care for the enslaved people.

The photo at the top of this page was taken in Mound Louisiana, near a farm road’s intersection with Highway 80.  When I lived over that way, I used to stand at this intersection and in the distance I could see an old mule barn, the dilapidated Mound Plantation Company Store, and the railroad tracks and depot to the south (all now gone – except the tracks). I tried to envision what it was like to be a sharecropper there in the late 1800s.  For myself, what I always came back to was not the labor but being tied to the land, the lack of freedom to move about.  I tried to imagine what those sharecroppers must have thought when the train came by and stopped at the depot to take folks somewhere they would never go.  I suspect at best, sharecroppers on the Mound Plantation rarely, if ever, even got as far as Vicksburg Mississippi, 15 miles and a wide Mississippi River away.  I have never been afraid of hard work.  But I could not imagine the loss of freedom of movement.  To stand out in a field and chop cotton and have someone yell at me to work harder would trivialize knowing the sharecropper experience.  I suspect the same is true for many today, young and old alike who visit our cultural heritage venues.

Living history can trivialize or truly engage with the past.  The outcome may often be determined in how cultural heritage venue the presents or represents the experience.

What are your thoughts on effective living history programs?

P.S. about two minutes after posting this initially, Adele Barbato’s Cabinet of Curiosity blog comes in with a related theme.

Response to American Digger, Part II

This semester I lead a seminar in Applied Archaeology and Museums at the University of Memphis.  The first point of discussion in this past Monday night’s class was responding to comments made to my blog post on the Spike Network American Digger program.  The comments were equally divided between those who opposed the concept of American Digger and those who believed the program is a legitimate response to the inability of the government or the archaeological community to address individual interests or preservation needs.

At first students commented that the supporters of American Digger need to be better informed on the importance of context and provenience for recovered archaeological materials.  They also saw the need for education on why cultural heritage should not be for sale to the highest bidder.  They suggested that the supporters should volunteer at an archaeological site to better understand proper excavation techniques.  While these suggestions were of much value, the responsibility was laid only at the feet of the American Digger supporters. I was surprised that the students did not consider the legitimacy of the concerns expressed by American Digger supporters.  I raised examples of what I perceive as a disconnect of archaeologists from the public they serve:

  •  Last year while visiting a large archaeological site during a public “Archaeology Day” event, I walked up to one of several excavation units and asked the student excavators a question about their work.  They responded they did not know what they were excavating, they were just told to dig there.  The student excavators returned to chatting about their social plans for the evening.  The four archaeologists I recognized on the crew were busy scurrying about doing other things.  I asked the seminar class, were I a casual visitor to the “Archaeology Day” event, what would my takeaway be?  The obvious answer is that despite the invitation for the public to visit the excavations, the archaeologists and students involved were not really interested in engaging the visitor.  Was this an isolated incident?  That is irrelevant to the visitor.
  • During a long ago class lecture in my BA program, the Dr. PhD instructor stated he would no more deal with an amateur archaeologist than he would an amateur medical doctor.  What is the takeaway of the students to that class lecture?
  • etc. etc.

After a bit of discussion along these lines, the class concluded that those who support and oppose American Digger could dredge up horror stories of past and present activities ad nauseam to defend their positions.  The class then turned to consider how to preserve material culture while accommodating the public desire and interest to engage in archaeological research and antiquities.  Here are some solutions we came up with:

  • We agreed on the need to acknowledge the stated concerns of the blog comments of the American Digger supporters, but not their solutions.
  • The gentleman who wanted an archaeologist to look at his property prior to construction and grading presumably wanted the work done at no cost.  Likely, lack of response from “the local archaeological departments” resulted in part from a lack of resources to conduct the investigations.  There is a catch to such public expectations.  If the gentleman contacted a private consulting firm, then he should expect to pay for the services in the same way as for the services of an architect or construction company.  If he contacted a public entity, then either the institution is adequately staffed for such work but is not doing their job, or the institution is short-staffed and cannot respond to noncritical situations.  If the latter case is true, then the landowner has a responsibility to ask why and the institution has a responsibility to explain.  In many cases, in this era of “no new taxes” the voting public has simply refused to fund cultural heritage services.  If the voting public does not fund those services, they cannot expect those services to be performed.  Education around this point is critically important.
  • The class also discussed the need to promote the public work of community based archaeologists.  For example, one of the favorite parts of my job with the Louisiana Division of Archaeology was the two weeks each year spent on the road speaking in small parish libraries and schools throughout the state.  The Arkansas Archaeological Survey hosts a suite of programs that are excellent models for community engagement.  The seminar students pointed to one of our course readings, a profile of Linda Derry, Alabama community archaeologist extraordinaire, published recently in the Society for American Archaeology’s publication the Archaeological Record (p. 19).  A Boy Scout merit badge in archaeology requires a minimum of 8 hours training by a professional archaeologist who receives no compensation for their services.  These examples only scratch the surface of public outreach by professional archaeologists.

The seminar students concluded that productions such as American Digger do not spring up out of thin air.  Yes, some archaeologists can be elitist and focused solely on their own research interests.  In the same way, there are irresponsible pothunters such as those who created the debacle at Slack Farm.  However, the majority of archaeologists and landowners want to see cultural heritage preserved and available to all.  We need to develop a norm where cultural heritage is preserved, not just when it impinges on an archaeologist’s pet research project or only when in the personal interest of an individual landowner.  Cultural heritage value must be considered an important part in our quality of life and not as a discretionary point that is last funded and first cut based on fluctuations in the economy.  Cultural heritage professionals must be accountable as public servants charged with preserving and providing access to the cultural heritage of their community.  At the same time, that public must fund the professionals to perform those tasks.

National Archaeology Day, October 20 2012, is an opportunity to engage in that conversation.  We have the luxury of six months to begin discussions and engage with the entire public to build toward the event.  If we take advantage of this opportunity, we can launch a movement that will extend beyond October 20th and plant the seeds for a rejuvenated national campaign toward valuing a public cultural heritage.  To the extent such a movement and consciousness grows, the dollar based American Digger mentality will be replaced with a public responsibility, appreciation and passion for preservation of our communities cultural heritage.

Museums, Students, & Community Engagement

This past Saturday at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa we opened our new exhibit on the African American Cultural Heritage in Southwest Memphis, created by nine area high school students over the past couple of months.  The primary products were a 20 minute documentary and a banner & artifact exhibit in the museum.   We see the exhibit as a major step in our functioning as a true community partner and resource center for the people of Southwest Memphis.   Of course, we continue our mission of high quality educational experience on the Native American cultures of the Midsouth as well.

If you are in Memphis, or pass through, stop by and visit the exhibit.  You can watch a video with highlights from the opening here.

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