Tag: visitor

Presentation, Participation and Relevance in 2013

steel ponies

Steel Ponies exhibit, 2012, Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art

I have been thinking about some of the key concepts to address in community outreach around cultural heritage issues in 2013.  Here are my top three:

Presentation – Cultural heritage institutions continue to curate more and more material both in real-time and digitally.    What seems crucial is the ability to present this wealth of material to the public whom we serve.  In the past couple of years at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa we  spent hundreds of hours tagging and digitizing 50 years worth of black and white photos.  We report the progress on this project in our newsletters and occasionally post images on our blog or Facebook.  However, we have yet to develop an effective means to present these digitized images to the public.  We might reasonably expect public interest in these photos to range from scholarly research to more casual access.  Similarly, although at Chucalissa we have logged thousands of hours over the past several years to re-inventory curated cultural materials, and linking those collections with their associated records, we have barely scratched the surface in the potential of presenting the material to the public.

Participation – In 2010, Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum synthesized and institutionalized the past several years of discussion and innovation on museum visitor engagement.  Simon’s scheme of contributory, collaborative, co-creative, and hosting types of visitor activities is a particularly useful model.  A challenge for cultural heritage institutions remains to truly incorporate the co-creative experiences that Simon notes are aimed “To give voice and be responsive to the needs and interests of local community members; To provide a place for community engagement and dialogue; To help participants develop skills that will support their own individual and community goals.”  Such an approach involves moving beyond staff discussions that attempt to anticipate or interpret national trends to better incorporate the visitor into museums.  Such co-creative approaches cannot be limited to projects with ready financial support, staff, or research interest but truly be in line with expressed community interests.  My colleague Natalye Tate was interviewed about community engagement a couple of years ago when she worked as a graduate assistant at the C.H. Nash Museum.  Her comments remain very relevant today when she noted: “Our role at the museum is to broker ideas to bring in volunteers who are members of communities, and ask what do you want to see, what do your kids want to see and what’s the direction you want to take this collection . . . our job is not to be the creators, but to make sure the process gets done and gets done well . . . not to be a house of authoritative knowledge where we tell you what you need to know  . . . which remains a problem in America . . .  that we tell people what their history is and they never go find it out for themselves.”

Relevance – Since reading and writing about Robert Janes’ Museums in a Troubled World, the simple concept of relevance remains in the forefront of my thinking.  Debbie Morrison at online learning insights reports on the MOOC coursera.org and their plans in 2013 to start making money on their online offerings.  The gist is that for select courses coursera will begin to offer upgraded versions of a certificate of completion for a fee.   I expect that the MOOC naysayers will come up with a big “We told you so” that the free stuff was too good to last.  My suspicion however is that coursera, that never claimed a nonprofit status, is moving forward with a very sound and relevant business plan.  If even less than 10% of the current number of folks completing coursera courses opt to pay up to 75.00 for the enhanced version of a certificate of completion, then a typical course could generate $50,000.00 in revenues.   To the extent the enhanced documentation proves relevant to the enrolled student, coursera will make money.  My own experience in taking coursera offerings is that successful completion of a course can approach or even exceed the results of a bricks and mortar higher education course offering.  To the extent coursera can demonstrate this result to employers and students, the relevance of that 75.00 fee will be a bargain price.

Presentation, participation, and relevance that go beyond proposals and theoretical discussions, but stand the test of a rigorous evaluation will likely separate the wheat from the chaff in cultural heritage work in the coming year.  In the same way that higher education must prioritize the student to remain competitive, in 2013 cultural heritage institutions have an opportunity to demonstrate relevance to the public we serve.

What are your key concepts for 2013?

Democracy, Visitors, & Museum Practices

Perhaps one of the aspects I enjoy most about leading seminars (i.e., teaching) is the opportunity to revisit the same concepts year after year.  For example, in the six years I have led the Museum Practices seminar in the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program at the Univeristy of Memphis, students have evolved from all but throwing tomatoes at me for even suggesting the notion of a virtual museum to, particularly with the advent of the Google Art Project, a thoughtful exploration of the concept.  Similarly, in part based on the mix of enrolled student home departments whether History, Art History, Anthropology, or Earth Sciences, the discussion of repatriation as exemplified by the Elgin Marbles incorporates differing dynamics.

For the past two weeks we discussed visitor experiences and evaluations in museums.  We read a range of materials including the relevant portions of ICOM’s Running a Museum, evaluation guides, standard readings and newly published offerings.  I always enjoy revisiting the tremendous resources available at the Visitor Studies Association on this subject.

Each week students submit an annotated reference on a resource relevant to the week’s discussion theme.  We discuss a few of the resources in class.  For me, the student references are one of the most enjoyable parts of the weekly seminar.  The readings cover the basics.  The annotated references allow us to go off in some interesting directions.

If there was a theme to the annotated references on visitors the students submitted this year the title would be something like the “Democratization of the Visitor Experience.”  Here are a few of the resources seminar students submitted:

  • The Museum of Science in Boston put out a call for public evaluation of accessibility for new exhibits.  The museum is  “currently gathering feedback about several of our new exhibits to improve the museum experience for visitors with disabilities.  Scheduled for this testing are exhibits about energy conservation, the science of Pixar, and health & human biology. We are seeking visitors with a range of disabilities (including, but not limited to, sensory, physical, and cognitive disabilities) to help us test these prototypes.”  Whereas exhibit designs always pass muster with consultants, the proactive invitation of the general public seems different.  In a similar vein, students at George Washington University’s Museum Education Program  created a wiki on issues related to accessibility.  I was particularly impressed with the role graduate students played in this latter process – creating a useful and accessible first stop tool in assessing visitor special needs.
  • I was also struck by the way a $200,000.00 prize was awarded recently at the Grand Rapids Art Museum in Michigan.  The winners of Art Prize 2012 were determined by 400,000 votes of the “viewing public” over a several week period.  Although a growing trend in such competitions, our seminar discussion suggested the Grand Rapids event is certainly in the forefront of this movement.
  • Public Value: From Good intentions to Public Good by Jeanne Vergeront is a thoughtful discussion.  She writes that “Public value isn’t a new concept. . . Relevance and community impact often refer to how a museum matters in its community.”  The blog includes several links to presentations and articles that explore this concept.
  • Teacher Creates a Museum in the Classroom reports the work of  Keil Hileman’s who teaches archeology at Monticello Trails Middle school in Shawnee, Kansas.  The blog has a brief discussion of Hileman’s methods with links to supporting agencies.  The post is from the blog Homeroom by the U.S. Department of Education.
  • The Museum Minute has a guest post titled Volunteer Engagement is Everyone’s Job by Carolyn Noe with a link to her Volunteer Management Daily blog.  An interesting aspect of visitor/volunteer discussion in our class is how volunteers can be viewed on a continuum as more engaged visitors.
  • And with Yelp, TripAdvisor, Rate My Professor could Rate My Museum be far behind? It’s here!!

A theme in the submitted references is the movement from museums being collections driven to focusing on the visitor experiences.  The public is increasingly involved in determining what that “great thing” of museums will look like and engage the visitor.  This shift in engagement looks like the graphic below.

Who gets added to “?” slot?

A Story on Active Learning

On the first session of all my classes I present graphic representations of Parker Palmer’s top down and interactive models of education adapted from his book The Courage to Teach.  I let students know right off that I favor the interactive model.  I take a similar perspective with internships on both college and high school levels.  I consider interactive engagement central to empowering students in their educational and creative processes.

This fall I went out on that proverbial limb a bit more.  I submitted a proposal to teach a one credit hour course to Freshman in the Helen Hardin Honors Program at the University of Memphis.  The course,  Reality is Broken, is based on the book of the same name by Jane McGonigal.  Her basic thesis is that if we spent as much time working on social problems as we do playing games, issues of hunger, oil shortages, war, etc. would move toward resolution.  In my course proposal, the class  would read and discuss McGonigal’s book and create a game that addressed a pressing social issue in Memphis, Tennessee.  From the start, I recognized that I am not an expert in games, at all.  I was completely aware that the students would know much more about games than me.  However, I imagined the course as more to create a space and allow a group of students to exercise their thoughts and expertise in such a project.  Course enrollment maxed out quickly and I was faced with putting meat on the bones of the proposal I submitted.

The first couple weeks of the course this semester went well enough.  Students readily discussed the readings, started forming some ideas and directions, but the process was still trying to find a way through to the goal of creating a game.  I have learned to feel comfortable with this approach, knowing that processes that are ultimately productive can be quite messy as they go along.

Then, two things happened.  First, Debbie Morrison wrote a couple of posts on active learning at her online learning insights blog that put that approach at the very forefront of my thinking.  Second, last week I forgot to bring my presentation notes and PowerPoint to class.  I was on the same level as all the students in class.  I had only a copy of McGonigal’s book with yellow highlights and column notes.

The discussion during that class period was excellent.  Creating the game started to take shape.  Several students began to take leadership of the project.  This week we continued on that trajectory.  I asked Maria to lead the class in a game she had played in high school.  The class played the game and discussed the applicability to their own game creation process.  When I asked, Katarina volunteered to take on the “professor role” and facilitate the rest of the discussion for the class period.   Hunter agreed to facilitate the class discussion next week.  I will continue to take part with the expertise I bring to the discussion in the same way that the students each bring their own expertise.

After class today I found myself going back to Debbie’s blog and tracking down some of the resources, particularly around peer instruction and the “flipped classroom.”

So how does this work for outreach in museums and archaeology?  Today, hands-on experiences are considered more engaging than uni-directional lectures or exhibits.  But I learned something else from the Reality is Broken class today.  Two weeks ago I took a bunch of board games to class to spark some thinking on the game creation process.  There was lots of hands-on during the class but something was not clicking.  Maria’s game from today completely engaged the class.  The 20 minutes spent playing Maria’s game elicited more engagement than the hour of game play two weeks before.  During both class periods, the goal of the activity was to stimulate thinking for the students to create their own game.  Maria provided a more relevant entry point than me to begin envisioning that process.

I think about this in terms of our outreach efforts in museums and archaeology.  Whatever the goal, are we engaging at the right entry point of the participant?  For example, if there is one successful program that young and old, male and female, Baptist and Muslim, thoroughly enjoy at the C.H. Nash Museum it’s throwing darts with an atlatl.  But that activity is usually the last point in a program or visit.  Yet the activity can also be the entry point to discuss physics, stone tool technology, hunting, and subsistence explored earlier in the visit.  I am not suggesting that the first thing we should do when the visitor comes through the door is hand them an atlatl.  I am suggesting that we consider possibly flipping the classroom in our outreach activities to a more active learning experience.

How does active learning work in your outreach efforts?

Labor Day and the Cultural Heritage Professional

In 1987 I enrolled in my first archaeological field school. The course was taught by the late Dr. Patricia Essenpreis at the Fort Ancient State Memorial in Warren County, Ohio, US.  That experience led to Pat serving as my mentor until her untimely death in 1991.  Fort Ancient’s 2000 year old earthen architecture ultimately served as a focus for my doctoral dissertation research.

What I remember most from the 1987 field experience was a need for rigorous field methods and the importance of public outreach.  Pat also posed a challenge that has remained with me 25 years later.  She argued that if you could not justify your research to the public who supported the work through their tax dollars, you might as well stay home.  In answering that challenge in 1987, I could not go beyond platitudes about site preservation, learning about the past, an interest in archaeology, and so forth.  During my graduate school career in the early 1990s I did not think a lot about Pat’s challenge.    In 1996, with a freshly printed PhD in hand, when I was hired as the Station Archaeologist at the Poverty Point earthworks in northeast Louisiana, Pat’s challenge came to the fore again, and has remained ever since.

Today, I can respond to Pat’s challenge beyond general platitudes.  To me, applied archaeology as exemplified by case studies in edited volumes such as Places in Mind: Public Archaeology as Applied Anthropology edited by Paul A. Shackel and Erve J. Chambers or Archaeology as a Tool of Civic Engagement edited by Barbara Little and Paul A. Shackel are excellent responses.  In these case studies cultural heritage is a source for empowering people.  At the C.H. Nash Museum, the creation of the African American Cultural Heritage Exhibit by area high school students is one of our big successes in public engagement and demonstrating the worth of our research.  The basic tenets of the Participatory Museum where the public and museum professionals co-create exhibits that explore cultural heritage are also an excellent response to Pat’s challenge.

Over the past few years I have challenged students with the essence of the question asked by Professor Barry Isaac during my M.A.thesis defense a bunch of years ago.  He asked “Why is your research more important than eating a plate of worms?”  I now reframe that question to something like “As a Graduate Assistant, through taxes the public are paying about $20,000.00 per year for you to go to school and come up with a research project.  I want you to put yourself in the position of John or Josephine Q. Public.  In the current economic chaos, the bank is foreclosing on their home, they have lost their jobs, and the city just reduced their public services.  In referring to the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the House Budget Committee recently argued that “The activities and content funded by these agencies…are generally enjoyed by people of higher income levels, making them a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier citizens.”  Isn’t your research just another example of this wealth transfer?  What do John and Josephine Q. Public get for the  $20,000.00 of their taxes that fund your research?”  As a general statement, today a student’s first response is stating the same platitudes as I did in 1987.

In 1987 when Pat issued her challenge, the economic situation in the U.S. was not rosy, but certainly not as dire as today.  I appreciate that she made her challenge during a time of declining unemployment.  Her challenge was not simply a self-serving call for job preservation.  What I got from Pat’s challenge is that we must remain vigilant and proactive in good times and bad so that value of cultural heritage is not viewed as just another earmark for someone’s pet project.  Rather, the public must be in sync with the cultural heritage professional in demanding that adequate resources are provided to protect and present this part of our country.

On this Labor Day in the U.S., a good exercise is to articulate how our labor as cultural heritage professionals is of value to the public that we serve and who fund our salaries.

Or as Professor Isaac would ask “Why is what we do more important than eating a plate of worms?”

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?

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.

National Archaeology Day & Advocacy

A bunch of opportunities are in the air to conduct effective community outreach for both archaeology and museums. The Archaeology Institute of America’s  Second National Archaeology Day (NAD), October 20, 2012 is just four months away.  With over 50 collaborating organizations to date, including that 400 locations of the U.S. National Park Service, state agencies such as the Louisiana Division of Archaeology, the Alabama Archaeological Society, the Florida Public Archaeology Network, and professional organizations such as the Society for American Archaeology, the national scope of the celebration is an excellent opportunity to highlight the relevance of cultural heritage preservation and presentation in our country today.  The NAD blog has a list of all the events planned across the country to date for the October celebration.  The list is impressive and includes special tours of research labs, conferences, festivals, presentations and much more.

At the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa we are firming up our plans for NAD.  Thus far, we scheduled the opening of a newly constructed replica prehistoric residential house.  Along with tours, including our new Medicinal Plant Sanctuary, we will also have flintknapping, hide tanning, atlatl dart throwing demonstrations and hands-on activities for the entire family.

Beyond just hosting events, NAD is an opportunity to take part in a community awareness and outreach campaign over the next several months.  Those of us who work in small to medium-sized museums with limited budgets are often overwhelmed when trying to compete with the larger venues.  NAD is an opportunity to participate as equal partners in a national consortium of collaborating agencies.  In building for the event, here are some opportunities to consider:

Op-ed and News Media Articles – The American Association of Museums (AAM) celebrates a Museum Advocacy Day each year.  In building awareness for the event, the AAM encourages individual museums to write op-ed pieces for local news media.  The C.H. Nash Museum is not the biggest museum in Memphis by a long shot, but we are the only museum to take up this AAM challenge.  As a result in both 2011 and 2012 our staff wrote op-ed pieces published in Memphis’ daily newspaper, the Commercial Appeal, highlighting the important work of museums in our community.  Of course, we will submit an op-ed piece for National Archaeology Day, and use the national scope to promote cultural heritage awareness and our event.  The NAD’s national scope allows such media coverage not to be viewed as paid advertising but as feature stories that explore the important role our museum plays in archaeological research and preservation.

Elected Public Officials – This week, AAM President Ford Bell sent an email to all members announcing August 11 – 18 as Invite Congress to Visit Your Museum week.  Given the epidemic of budget cuts occurring in our country, President Bell wrote:

What will influence Congress the most as they make these tough budget choices?“According to a recent study, constituent visits have more influence than any other influence group or strategy. This ‘Invite Congress to Visit Your Museum’ event is the perfect opportunity for Congress to learn first-hand how museums provide essential community services. I urge every museum to participate in this event.

Our experience at Chucalissa shows that when we ask our elected officials to visit our museum, they respond with a very real interest in seeing how we are relevant to the electorate they represent.  NAD is an excellent opportunity to showcase that relevance in a nationally organized forum.  Consider using the summer recess period to connect with your public officials on both the national and local levels to talk about how you will tie into NAD activities and why archaeology is meaningful to the community they represent.

Word of Mouth – I am fond of saying all of this type of work is a process not an event.  I recollect from the movie What About Bob it’s all about taking baby steps.  I had an experience this past Friday that reflects this understanding.  First, especially when we are slow at the Museum, I am a sucker for taking any visiting young boy or girl outside to let them throw darts with an atlatl.  They always enjoy this activity. This past Friday I moderated two break-out sessions on prehistory at the Delta – Everything Southern Conference that featured my friend Sam Brookes.  Sam has forgotten more about the archaeology of the Mississippi Delta than I will ever know.  Each breakout session was attended by about 50 folks.  After the sessions, four separate individuals came up and thanked me for taking their children out to throw darts during their visit to the Museum.  Each person raved that their child/grandchild was thrilled with the opportunity and wanted to come back to the Museum for another session.  Here is the punch line on this.  I only recognized one of the four adults (granddaughter pictured above) but graciously acknowledged to all that providing the opportunity is what we are all about at the Museum – which is true.  The resulting word-of-mouth advertising from such encounters is often built one person at a time but is more effective than op-ed pieces or paid advertising.  Check a recent post in Colleen Dilenschneider’s Know Your Own Bone blog to explore the evolving priority of such word-of-mouth interactions over other forms of marketing.

National Archaeology Day is an incredible opportunity in our ongoing process of demonstrating the relevance of  our work in cultural heritage preservation and presentation.  We can tap into this national event to introduce new communities to the archaeological venues their tax dollars support.  After this introduction, these visitors can become our word-of-mouth ambassadors to their neighbors, and so on, and so on, and so on . . . it is truly a never ending process!

A Museum Program Niche


Following up on last week’s post about a people engagement niche, I want to take a look at creating a program niche.  Over the past few years at the C.H. Nash Museum, we have gone through a transition in our programming.  Thirty years ago, our programs focused on a reconstructed prehistoric village with a rather regimented Native American performance coupled with an exhibit of human remains.  Time, economics, accountability in presenting indigenous voices, along with the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, dramatically altered those programs.  My predecessor as Museum Director, Dan Swan, in 2005 pondered after the removal of the last vestiges of the dilapidated replica village “Without the reconstructed village, what is the value of the Chucalissa site?”

As I posted before  addressing that question has been a focus of our work over the past several years.  We first looked around at what other Museums did well.  The Pink Palace here in Memphis has an exceptional “traveling trunk” exhibit to the schools.  We thought about creating something similar.  Just across the River in Arkansas, the Parkin Archaeological Site offers a week of Black History program each February.  A similar offering seemed a good way to relate to the 95% African-American Community that surrounds the Chucalissa site.  Fortunately, we did not get past the thinking stage on any of these projects.  Instead we considered our own niche – our SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats).  For the past three years, we begin each fall semester with a week-by-week chapter review of Stephanie Weaver’s Creating Great Visitor Experiences that helps us to investigate these concepts and to refine our niche.  Here are some of the things we have come up.

Context – Chucalissa is situated on 100 forested acres that are adjacent to another 1000 acres of the T.O. Fuller State Park.  In a recent survey of our monthly e-newsletter readers, respondents suggested we develop more programs on our natural environment.  In 2008, the Southwind Garden Club created a state certified arboretum at Chucalissa.  This summer members of the Westwood community will plant traditional foods in an urban garden at Chucalissa.  This past Saturday we launched our Traditional Medicinal Plant Sanctuary funded through Green Fee at the University of Memphis.  Of note, the Memphis Botanic Garden (MBG) also recently created a medicinal plant garden.  In conversation with MBG Garden Curator, Chris Cosby, we discussed how Chucalissa and MBG gardens might complement and not be redundant to each other.  As Chris noted, at Chucalissa, our plants are in their natural context and allow an appreciation of the micro-environments that support the different species.  At MBG’s made environment this appreciation is not as apparent – a great example of living into our mutual strengths and opportunities.

Resources – As a regional repository for the past fifty years, the C.H. Nash Museum has accumulated a considerable educational collection of historic and prehistoric materials.  Educational collections result from the past practice of the museum accepting donations of unprovenienced artifacts from surface collections or other unknown sources.  Although we no longer accept such donations, in the past we accumulated 30 or so cubic feet of collections with no research value but plenty of educational worth for exhibits and programs.  These educational collections allow us to use real artifacts in our hands-on archaeology lab and in other offerings, such as our stone tool program.  This opportunity is unlike any other in our region –  again, a niche that we can live into.

The Chucalissa Site – One of our greatest strengths is that our Museum is located on the grounds of a temple mound complex built by Native Americans 1000 years ago.  The greatest weakness our Graduate Assistants identified last fall in assessing our current programs and exhibits was our museum’s lack of interpretation of the site.  That is, we do a good job of interpreting both prehistoric and modern Native American cultures, in general, but our Museum presents little specific to those people who lived at Chucalissa.  At the same time, we curate collections from a 50 year archaeology program at the site on which to base those presentations – obviously, a niche that we can fill best.

In the Memphis area, within a 2-3 hour drive there are perhaps a dozen or so museum venues that interpret the prehistory of the region. In one respect, savvy marketing dictates that the dozen venues not be cookie cutter models of each other to effectively cross-promote all venues.  However, more importantly by developing our individual niches we can live into our individual strengths and opportunities.  For example, until five years ago, the trail system at the Chucalissa was not much more than an afterthought in site interpretation.  We considered our off the beaten path location as a deterrent in attracting visitors.   Today, we envision our “rural oasis 20 minutes from downtown Memphis” as an asset and an important part of our niche.

What are the unique niches that your venue fills?

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