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Could You Be A Spy?

On our final museum visit we went to the International Spy Museum. This museum was the I was personally looking forward to the most and it definitely did not disappoint! The museum had an a different and amazing way of telling their story and getting their main ideas across to the public. We have unintentionally adopted another theme for our seminar being “guided serendipity” but no one did it quite like the International Spy Museum. Every twist and turn you followed in the museum lead you to some type of new discovery, surprise and learning opportunity.  The spy museum was able to teach the visitors that it isn’t as easy as it looks to be a spy though different interactive features like the air duct challenge and observation games. In addition, the museum had multiple spots for you to try and decode messages which were especially challenging. In a way it challenges the visitor to test their skill while teaching them along the way, most of the time without the visitor realizing it.

In addition to being able to explore the museum and do the interactives we were able to see the insight into the goals of the museum as well as the plans for the new International Spy Museum building that is in the works. This new space will allow much more depth and opportunities not available to the museum before. In addition they can incorporate a lot of the visitor feedback to ensure better return results at the new location. We even got to do a small assignment and provide our feedback to them. For the assignment we were to find an exhibit we liked or disliked and provide our ways to make it better of promote it more.

Above is picture of the exhibit I found fascinating (excuse the glare, it was impossible to get a photograph without them). This was a replica of the Great Seal of the United States that was given to a U.S. ambassador by Soviet school children. He displayed this seal in his office for over ten years before it was discovered that there was a bug in it. This object tells a unique story that in the world of espionage no one can be underestimated.

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A Hard Story to Tell

On our second to the last museum visit we finally made it to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Although we dealt with the idea of telling a difficult story throughout our Seminar, with the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum exemplified the balance between telling the truth of what happened without blaming or pointing figures. What will stick with me the most after my time spent in D.C. is the big idea that the Holocaust Museum was trying to portray that, all humans have the potential to make these horrible choices and the people making the right or the wrong choices are not inherently good or bad people. There is a lot of grey areas where some bad decisions were made with the right intentions and vice versa, some people saving the Jews were doing it for purely selfish reasons like money. Like we have heard over and over again there are always more than one side of the story.

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In addition to being able to tell a difficult story the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum also does an great job on the accessibility of parts of the exhibits. The Some Where Neighbors exhibit had audio that was playing over head with quotes from the Jews to help people with hearing disabilities there we the quotes being projected on to the screen for them to read. In addition there were short small captions near each of the objects for someone to read to understand the context of the photograph.

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The Hard, Complicated Truth Delivered with Dignity and Grace

“But Washington allowed his slaves to marry, correct?”

“But Washington was a good slave owner, right?”

These are only two of the many reassurances that visitors ask for when on a tour at Mount Vernon. When their ideas of George Washington, Founding Father, come into contact with the harsh reality to George Washington, Slave Owner. The way that the Mount Vernon team handle the tough and murky stories there are to tell about the estate and the people who lived and worked on the lands was extraordinary. Of course there is no way to please everyone but the interpreters and staff try to teach the visitors to look at the situation thorough a different viewpoint, the one of the enslaved.

With the question, “but Washington was a good slave owner, right?” interpreters try and show the visitors that there is no such thing as a good slave owner. This revelation could come with a simple question such as, “what are the qualifications of a good slave owner?” then having them come to the resolution that if the enslavement of people is inherently wrong then how can a slave owner be called a good.

We witnessed one such question during our Character Interpretation when an older woman asked, “But Washington allowed his slaves to marry, correct?” In character, the interpreter of Christopher Sheels, explained the unofficial way that the enslaved population married, along with the story of how he met his wife, their life together both the happiness and struggles, then ending with how they were separated for trying to runaway to give a better life for their family. Although elegantly explained the hard fact of the life of the enslaved population set in hard and brought tears to many eyes in the room.

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What is True Accessibility in a Museum?

This question was the highlight of today’s journey. What does accessibility really mean and why do we need it? The talk we had today at the National Museum of American History opened my eyes to the possibilities of programs and everyday exhibit changes that I would have never thought of before. The idea that the museums need to make the inclusiveness about more than just a policy but a way of thinking. There should always be an allotted budget for the programs or accommodations in ALL exhibitions. This could be as simple as having funding for the sign language interpreters, audio tours, braille labels or interactives for the mentally impaired. There are so many options and easy ways to help ensure all visitors are able to take away something from the museum.

I really enjoyed listening to the journey SparkLabs had in creating an accessible space for all visitors, especially ones with mental handicaps. The worksheets and resources that they created for the “Morning at the Museum” event was innovative and new to me. By having these resources and knowing what to expect before ever stepping into the museum gives the parents as well as the children a firm foundation in which to base their visit on. The resource that stood out to me the most was the worksheet for both the children and parents where it told them that there might be loud noises or bright colors. The one warning that stood out to me the most was when the children were warned that when moving stations things might have to be left behind for others to use. I thought this was especially important to put in the handout because it established boundaries and expectations right away so the child can be prepared to have to leave the object or objects behind when leaving the table.

Upon leaving the NMAH I felt like I was critiquing the National Gallery of Art on their accessibility readiness and trying to come up with more ways in which different visitors could enjoy the space. As we heard in the talk at the NGA, there are many improvements that they are trying to make in their exhibits and building space. They recognize that their accessibility still has a long way to go to become inclusive to all. The labels are only in English with minimal text to explain the object, the light and visual stimulus can be overwhelming in certain sections of the museum, but the Museum is aware of those issues and are slowly going through the steps to right the situation (albeit rather slowly).

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The Art of Storytelling in Zoos and Historical Homes

This week we have been learning about Storytelling in the formal museum setting but today we had the opportunity to see storytelling in a whole new light. When it comes to Zoos and Historical Homes it can be a little more difficult to dictate the stories without a docent or volunteer explaining things to the visitor. Both the Smithsonian and the Hillwood Estates did an amazing job fusing the storytelling together with the animals/object they had.

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For example, we spent a lot of time with Mei Xiang the female Panda. The keeper came out and described mating season, eating habits, enrichment activities, care and many more things with us to help us connect more with Mei. Although it is amazing to see the animals and watch them go about their business, when someone starts telling stories about the specific animal you are looking at or you hear or read something other than the standard “what is this animal” labeling, you develop a more personal connection to that animal. Once that personal connection is established it is easier for the institution to offer more information to about the animal, be it through talks, shows, interactives, wall labels, etc. In addition to how they tell stories, what they tell is different from what you would find in a traditional museum. A concept that stood out to me was that Zoos are less about preserving objects and more about the work to help the animals from becoming endangered.

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Historic homes are another subsection of museums that have a different view on how to tell a story. For example, at the Hillwood Estates labels and context is not exactly in the forefront of the exhibits. Instead of the traditional “Tombstone” labels to give context, meanings and stories, the information could be given in audio tour form, paper tour or by the docents on each floor. Although labels would have been extremely helpful they would have taken away from the feel that the historic homes are trying to portray. It is more about putting you in the moment and letting you see the home as it was intended. Personally, I am not a big audio tour person, so the lack of on wall or labels put me off a bit. Although you could get some context from the paper tour, the house felt very overwhelming and hard to focus in on any points they were trying to portray. I understand the reasoning behind the lack of labels and the audio tour as a primary resource it is a bit of a shame for those of use who don’t care for that type of tour.

 

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American?

What does it mean to be American? I think this is a interesting and complex question that was in the forefront of my mind on our expeditions today. It became a even more difficult question to answer while walking the halls of the National Museum of American Indians. Before coming to the American Indian Museum I had never realized the extent on to which the Indians are incorporated into our very essence as a country. It wasn’t until the presentation by Dan and Ed where they showed us a glimpse into the upcoming exhibit, “Americans” that I started to realize how much POP culture and symbolism where based around the Native Americans.

In addition to showing the effects Native Americans had on the development of what we see as America today, I believe the American Indian Museum did a fantastic job in their own storytelling! They had interactives, programs and stalls around the museum where people could learn about more specific objects like drums and rattles the Indians used for music. It clearly was able to show another side of the Indian story that was never seen before. It is a more personal and upfront view of the culture.

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A specific item that caught my attention was “The Long Dog Winter Count”. It was a fantastic piece that taught visitors how important it was to the Native Americans to  record the significant changes in their lives. This form of storytelling is done by pictographs or drawings of the events, such as battles, deaths of leaders, etc. If given the chance a person could spend all day looking and deciphering the events that happened to the Laoka Tribe over the span of many years. The specific winter count that I saw covered about 71 years starting around 1800s. As the identifier stated it was a way, “to share the community’s history and wisdom with the younger generation.”

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And Away We Go!

Although today proved to be emotionally and physically challenging day, I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. NMAAHC was a fantastic start to our two week journey through the Museums of Washington D.C. While I enjoyed the whole museum I was particularly touched by the bottom level of the museum.

Standing in the elevator as we slowly descended watching as the dates scrolled back to the 1400s put me in the moment and made me feel like we were being transported back to the beginnings of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Upon walking into the exhibit there is a feeling of sorrow that washes over you. Throughout the exhibits on the bottom level, especially in the beginning when they are describing the transporting of the slaves, it is easy to empathize with the African caught in this awful situation. A particular section of the exhibit features you going into a side room with wooden floors and pieces of the boat, quotes and a few shackles are on display. In that tiny alcove, the story that was delivered brought tears to my eyes. The quotes on the walls described slaves jumping overboard into shark infested waters to end their misery and how many greeted death as a friend. But the most impactful quote I found was a quote by William Corbett in 1806 stating, “Their singing…[was] always in tears, in so much that one captain…threatened one of the women with a flogging because the mournfulness of her song was too painful for his feelings.” Many times the crew of these ships are portrayed as evil villains in the background this brought to light a couple things about some of the people who transported the slaves to auction. The first being that they knew what they were doing was wrong, they knew these were people who were getting wrenched away from their homes, families and lives to serve as puppets for an others use. Secondly, they were not unaffected by this deed, they held with themselves a shame that they were trying to ignore and did not want to be reminded of such emotions.

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Although I was most effected by the section over the slave trade, NMAAHC did an amazing job on their execution of storytelling. There was always more than one side to the story making the exhibits more dimensional and enriching. They accomplished this with visuals, audio, and digital interactives throughout the entire museum. All the tools they used made the visitor put it into a personal level that I had never seen before.