The Exciting Whiz-Bang World of Museum Technology Conferences

As it turns out, it’s not quite so whiz-bang after all.

While I was preparing over the last several weeks to go to the Museum Computer Network conference in Minneapolis, I wondered what other people thought we talked about when we got digital strategists, UX professionals, social media rockstars, and other wonderful people who make up the technological fabric of museums together in one place for four days. I was curious myself, this being my first MCN: I’d heard wonderful things about the community, and the program seemed right up my alley as a museum professional who does digital things for the purpose of connecting people to one another in the museum space. But I had some trepidation. Would this be like Museums and the Web, where I always felt a little out of my depths, not quite savvy or experienced enough to catch the drift of the technological terms being thrown around in sessions? Would my sessions come across as cute but not quite up to the challenge of the week?

There was nothing to fear. This year, in this field, when people who work in museum technology gathered in Minneapolis, we talked a little about museums, and a little about technology. But most of all, we talked about people.

Close-up photo of black-on-white text with the Museum Computer Network logo and the phrase "advancing digital transformation in the cultural sector."

This is the Museum Computer Network’s tagline. This year, it felt more like “advancing cultural transformation in the digital sector.”

Conferences at their heart are all about people. Particularly in our sector, where we stay in touch so much through the magic of social media and the blogosphere, the goal of getting 530 of us together in one hotel for several days focuses on the need for human connection, the kind that only comes from sitting around at a bar, visiting a museum together, singing karaoke until all hours, or going out for chicken and waffles. When you’re sitting in sessions and not having an impromptu confab in the hallway, though, there’s nothing that says those sessions need to have the same human touch.

At MCN, I found my favorite words spoken by my favorite people: words like empathy, accessibility, cultural agency. I found new favorite people and new favorite words and phrases: co-power, citizen expert/expert citizen, inclusive design. From the first night, Ignite sessions focused us on the human beings at the center of our work: Nikhil Trivedi spoke truth to power about creating frameworks opposing oppression in museums’ futures and recognizing the oppression inherent in museums’ pasts. And Sina Bahram–for the first time, but not the last time, this conference–brought the house down with a participatory talk on access, delivered with kindness, humor, and fire. (Kate Haley Goldman posited that Ignite was about “cultural norming within this community, rather than innovation or provocation,” but for some of our home museums, these ideas are still pretty radical.)

In addition to Nikhil and Sina’s charges to us, showing that we could take small steps in the direction of creating new anti-oppression frameworks and accessibility, the fervor not just for theories of human-centered creation but for tangible action items in the direction of making it a reality permeated the conference. Dana Mitroff Silvers and Susan Edwards led a brilliant workshop on design thinking, which begins with empathy interviews, in which we learn our visitors’ needs (their verbs, not their nouns) by getting to know them as people and always asking “Why?” Liz Ogbu’s unforgettable keynote reminded us to meet our audiences on their turf if we want to get to know them better, to find the museum version of cooking together, and to search for the right question to answer rather than first for the right solution. Lesley Kadish gave a brilliant, slideless talk on experiences beyond sight. (More to come when I’m off the plane home!)

So what do museum tech people talk about when they get together to talk about museum tech? It’s not about the collections, or the museums, or the technology itself. It’s how these tools help us to create more human experiences and a stronger humanity. It’s how our understanding of these tools allows us to be better to our visitors, users, fellow travelers, communities, audiences, or buddies (we really need some better words for our people), but that understanding these human beings is the crucial component in all our work. In the year ahead, let’s be better to each other and to our visitors as human beings, and let’s see where those actions have moved the world when we reconvene in New Orleans.

(NB: Most of these reflections represent sessions I attended or followed on Twitter; additional reflections and sessions welcome in the comments. -EF)


Hey there, blogosphere! It’s been a while. Pretty busy spring over here: I’ve been gainfully and happily employed as a program coordinator for the Leadership Programs division at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum since January, and have been on travel for the bulk of April already. Two weeks ago I came back from my first trip to Museums and the Web bursting with enthusiasm about the state of the field right now and the amazing colleagues with whom we share it, and tonight I’m packing for my third trip to the American Association of Museums’ Annual Meeting. This will be my first trip as a real live museum employee: my first year I was a grad student and last year I was an “Independent Museum Professional,” but my USHMM business cards just arrived in my mailbox this afternoon, so I guess I’m legit now.

What brings me to AAM this year? Well, this year I’m presenting two very exciting sessions: one is an idea lounge where my friend and fellow EdCom digital outreach coordinator Tim Rhue II and I will be leading an informal conversation on the future of museum education, and the other is a panel session about how museum educators use social media in our craft. I’ll also be drumming up support for EdCom’s work and presenting the MUSE award for excellence in education technology, so my dance card is pretty full before I even get to Minneapolis.

The other thing that has kept me coming back to AAM these last few years is the caliber of conversation that goes on in sessions, in the halls, on the Expo floor, over beers and burgers, on the dance floor at the opening party. We work with some truly astounding people who bring passion and ingenuity to the diverse business of museums, and over the four days of the conference we continually bump into one another, furthering the ideas that germinate over the course of the year between and allowing them to take root for the year ahead.

With that in mind, come find me at the conference so we can chat. Tell me your hopes for the future of the field. Tell me why you came to Minneapolis, what you’re hoping to find there, what we can accomplish once we’re all back home. I’ll be on the backchannel throughout the conference, too, so feel free to tweet at me and we can make plans.

Here’s where I’ll be looking for good conversation:

Saturday, April 27:

Anywhere. I arrive at MSP bright and early tomorrow!

Sunday, April 28:

1:30 pm, the bookstore: Nina Simon’s informal participatory history meet-up
2:45 pm, Hall 3: Beyond Digitization: the question of online collections sparked interesting philosophical discussions at Museums and the Web, so this session should be similarly thought-provoking
4:15 pm: Hopping among sessions on narrative, challenging conversations, and emerging museums professionals who are building creative communities through technology.
6:00 pm, Hilton Minneapolis Ballroom: Grab a glass of champagne and join us for the MUSE awards! I’ll be cabbing it quickly from there to the . . .
6:00 pm, Mill City Museum: EdCom opening reception and awards ceremony, where we’ll reflect on the year gone by and get excited for the . . .
9:00 pm, Minneapolis Institute of the Arts: AAM opening party. Bring your dancing shoes and boogie down.

Monday, April 30

So many excellent sessions! This year’s general session looks brilliant–we’ll be joined by three storytellers from The Moth, along with Ford Bell himself and a representative from Target, who’s helping sponsor this year’s conference. I’ll also be at the ALGC luncheon, and I hope to catch you all around the Expo or at the Marketplace of Ideas later that day.

ETA: Just discovered that I’m also signed up for the EMP event at the Guthrie Theater, too.

Tuesday, May 1


9:00 am, 205 C/D: My colleagues from the Holocaust Museum are presenting on the “Bringing the Lessons Home” youth leadership program. Come help cheer them on!
10:45 am, M100 G: Having started out at a small European museum, I’m excited to see what else we can learn from them. 
12:15 pm, Hilton – Marquette Ballrooms: The ever-popular, ever-delicious EdCom luncheon.
4:00 pm: Set up, prep, and presentation: The 21st Century Museum Educator (for the virtual conference). You can follow the conversation on Twitter using #21stME. Again, I’ll be high-tailing it from there to . . .
5:15 pm, 204 A/B: The Future of Museum Education. Our unconference-style session is set up for audience-driven conversation, so your attendance and ideas will make the discussion richer.
7:00 pm: Museum-Ed Kegger. For serious. Do join us.

Wednesday, May 2

10:45 am, M100 I: The 21st Century Museum Educator. I’ll be talking with Tony Pennay, Mark Fitzpatrick, and Amy Heibel about how social media and social museums enhance and enrich the work of educators and experience of audiences in our museums.

It’s a busy week, so rest up on the plane. Excited to see you all there!

Museum #5: The National Building Museum

Something that I came to realize about this blog in preparing to write this post is that a Museums 365 visit cannot be a solo experience. The only time I write about my visits to museums without at least one partner in contemplation is in sidelights: a single exhibit, a reflection on a long-past museum moment, or a museum that isn’t actually in DC.

The reason for this became clear over dim sum after our visit to the National Building Museum last weekend. I made the trip with three of my Juno tweetup buddies, and before the visit I’d sent a list of questions and pre-reading to contemplate. As I took notes on our dinnertime post-mortem, one of my companions turned to me and asked, “Well, what do you think?” Turns out that I’m much better at asking than at answering questions. In general, I come at museums with an overwhelmingly positive and open-minded attitude, but I have become more and more of a curious person and a believer in the value of question-based exploration as I spend more time as a museum professional. I need my museum-going buddies so that, when I write up a full museum here, it’s not just full of excitement and more questions. (I hope there are still plenty of those in here, too! Answers are also good, and I tend to be less effusive about those.)

National Building Museum Interior

The National Building Museum from the top floor. Picture by me.

I preface the following by saying that I adore the museum. The more I learn about it, the more time I spend in it, the more fascinated I become by it. But I had questions (as usual), and hopefully we found some answers.

Without further ado, the National Building Museum. Read the rest of this entry

A Decade in Museums

Ed. Note: I owe you all two posts in the “museums in cool buildings” series, NPG/SAAM and the National Building Museum. Being knocked out with migraines for two of the last three days wasn’t conducive to blogging constructively, so here, enjoy a fluffy filler piece for now. -Elissa

Old Rockville Courthouse

Old Rockville Courthouse, home of Peerless Rockville. A great home for a first museum work experience, no? (Image credit

I couldn’t let this summer pass me by without noting that this is my 10th summer as a “museum person.” (Given that I’m turning 25 next month, that’s a long time to be in museums.) Other than one wonderful summer spent working at a cooking school, I’ve volunteered, interned, or worked for a museum, historical society, or archive since 2002. It all started at the Peerless Rockville Historical Society in beautiful downtown Rockville, a five-minute drive or 10-minute bike ride from my parents’ house, where I was a camp counselor and amateur cartographer looking at Rockville’s recent past. At the time, it was a great way to learn about my hometown and do something fun and educational while I was getting ready to start my junior year in high school.

Since then, I’ve worked as an educator, archivist, historian, researcher, finding aid writer, grant writer, publicity coordinator, docent, docent coordinator, and general cheerleader from the Naval Historical Center at the DC Navy Yard to the Jewish Museum in Vienna, Austria. But the real reason why this story bears telling is because of what happened five years ago this summer.

Five years ago this summer, I was studying German in Munich under the auspices of my alma mater and the Goethe Institute. Our group took a side trip to Berlin for a weekend, where we stayed in a “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”-themed hostel (no, really) and ate a lot of gelato. Our first night there was a Friday. As we were walking back to the hostel, we got slightly turned around and wound up heading down a side street. And suddenly, there it was.

Neue Synagoge, Berlin

Neue Synagoge, Oranienburgerstrasse, Berlin. This is a picture I took; this is a picture that changed my life.

Rising out of a copse of trees, there was a golden dome crowned with a Magen David. Here in the middle of Berlin. Fascinated, I ran to look at what it was. A working synagogue and a Jewish museum? What in the world was a Jewish museum? It being Shabbat, the museum was closed the next day, but on Sunday morning I skipped out (whoops) on the activity we were supposed to be doing and returned, alone, to Oranienburgerstrasse.

It was there that I first learned of the politics of displaying Jewish objects, of talking about both a destroyed Jewish population and a living contemporary one in a single breath, of the many ways to cast a memorial to a synagogue in ruins even as it rises, new-born, from its ashes. I prayed. I cried. I was hooked. (I haven’t been able to find a photograph of the columns that ring what used to be the sanctuary, which was bombed by the Soviet Union after the war after it had already been set ablaze during the November Pogrom, but that was the view that affected me the most.)

Bima and Synagogue, Jüdisches Kulturmuseum und Synagoge Veitshöchheim

View of the bima and the rest of the synagogue, Jewish Museum and Synagogue Veitshöchheim. Taken by me, January 2008

When I got back to school in the fall, I applied for a Princeton Summer Work Program internship at the Jewish Museum of Vienna, was accepted, and spent three months learning what Jewish museums mean to German- and English-speaking visitors (hint: two very different things) and how education works in a museum. My senior thesis took me back to Germany’s Jewish museums, some large and new-built, as in Munich, others very small and using old synagogues, as in tiny Veitshöchheim, where the synagogue had been a fire station and art museum before its conversion into a Jewish museum. Eager to continue my research, I applied for an internship with the Senior Historian at the Holocaust Museum. And here I am, three years later.

Moral of the story: look up. Always, always look up. If I’d missed that dome, or taken a different street home, goodness knows what I’d be doing today. Here’s to the first ten years; here’s to the next ten, and the ten after that. Thanks for taking this journey with me, friends.

Gang in Munich

Did I mention we were in Munich during the World Cup? Taken by Alexandra Cristea, June 2006.

Museum #4 and #4.5: A Quick Post on NPG and SAAM

This is a placeholder for a longer post coming tonight. The boy reminded me that we did indeed see the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum before he left for San Diego, in an attempt to settle the “one museum or two?” debate, since both share space in the same building.

The punchline: they’re two museums, with entirely different approaches to art. But art always comes out of its context, and NPG displays the context for SAAM, so they need each other to be fully accessible to visitors.

More later!

What Museums Can Learn From A NASA Tweetup

This past week, I had the incredible good fortune to attend a NASA tweetup, in which I spent four days with other like-mindedTwitter users (henceforth “tweeps”) at the Kennedy Space Center.  These are people who excel at what they do in their professional lives, which, as mine, often have little to do with space, and somehow still have enough passion left to pour it into thinking, dreaming, jumping up and down about space. NASA did us an amazing favor by bringing us together from across the country and around the world to watch the launch of the Atlas V rocket starting the Juno spacecraft on its voyage to Jupiter, letting our personal excitement be sharpened and expanded by the excitement and knowledge of those around us, creating a community and what seem to be lasting friendships out of people who would not have met if not for a pretty little spacecraft zooming toward Jupiter.

I spend a lot of time in my professional life thinking about visitor engagement. How do we attract people to our museum and our programs? Once we have them, how do we make them stay? How do we help visitors, whether in person or online, to feel that they have a stake and a foothold in our museum? Over the course of the last two years, NASA’s tweetups have paved the way for museums to start answering these questions, so I propose here:

What Museums Can Learn From A NASA Tweetup

Dedicated to the residents and friends of Jupiter House. Go Juno!

1. Your content is already exciting

Ok, so maybe it’s not space. But there is definitely more than one person out there who thinks your pottery, rocks, protest memorabilia, interactive exhibit, block of wood painted blue is absolutely fascinating. More importantly, there is definitely more than one person out there who doesn’t know about your pottery, rocks, blue wood, etc. but, upon discovering them, will have his or her eyes opened to the world of pottery, or rocks, or contemporary art. I don’t really know much about space, honestly, but I know that I like unanswered questions.  Hearing from a number of different people at the tweetup about how little we know about Jupiter under the clouds was enough to get my imagination going. Also, finding out that Juno will be the first solar-powered spacecraft to travel that deeply into the solar system helped focus my thoughts on the solar panels: how big are they? How much power will they produce that far from the sun? I’ve never spent a lot of time thinking about solar panels, but the knowledge that these are history-making solar panels was rather eye-opening.

Your job is not to say “Hey, our stuff is exciting, and you should think so because we do!” Your job is to say, “Hey, here is our stuff. Here is the context in which it was made/stratum in which this rock was found, it is the first/the furthest/the biggest, here is a place for you to hang your hat even if you don’t know much about this category of things.” Don’t tell me to be excited; show me places where I can find my own excitement.

2. Visitors can’t get excited about your content without access to it

I mean this in both senses of “access”: intellectual access, as discussed above, and physical access, be it in person or through the magic of the internet. If you have an amazing artifact that you’re keeping in a back room or in deep storage for its safety and haven’t blogged or tweeted about it or posted a picture on Facebook, you’re missing the opportunity to share its story with a much wider population than would see it in person even if it was on display.

Knowing Discovery was in the VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building) was cool. Seeing Discovery in the VAB was mind-blowing. Sharing the picture of Discovery in the VAB with 570 Facebook friends and 392 Twitter followers was an exercise in shared excitement. The corollary to this is . . .

3. Stop being afraid of your visitors

This is a central tenet of working on citizen projects: you need to let your visitors in to be a part of your work and trust them a little bit. In terms of a NASA tweetup, this translates to “We are going to let scientists, administrators, engineers, and a Science Guy speak candidly to 150 people who will be tweeting the bulk of what they say to the world at large.”  At the Juno tweetup, these tweets included references to jet-propelled space cows, Buzz Aldrin being a pole vaulter, and a particularly enthusiastic interpretation of Juno’s eventual demise. Were we consistently tweeting out only the hard scientific facts? By no means. Were we using these amusing moments to share our excitement with our followers? Absolutely. NASA has realized that rather than diluting the NASA brand, the sharing of laugh lines alongside the party line draws in more people who might not otherwise be curious about what was going on inside the Twent.

Bottom line: More enthusiasm is a good thing. Let your visitors discover you, warts and all, and let them talk to their friends about the parts that invigorate them. Empower them to interact and share their experiences outside your walls.

Speaking of which:

4. Give your visitors opportunities to engage with you–and each other–before, during, and after the visit

One of the things that makes the NASA spacetweep community so strong is that it is a fellowship of sorts. Secrets of how to organize housing, what to pack, for whom to keep an eye out while at KSC/JSC/JPL, and how to put on an endless barbecue are passed down from tweetup to tweetup, previous participants engage with first time attendees, and participants meet in their hometowns ahead of time–all of this before attendees have even arrived at the accreditation office to receive their credentials. Moreover, participation in the tweetup is predicated on attendees’ following @NASA on Twitter, meaning that engagement with NASA the brand and NASA the institution is already expected–again, before even driving past the gate at Kennedy Space Center. Give your visitors a means of interacting with you before they arrive, and they can be invested in who you are, what you do, and how best to enjoy your offerings the moment they walk in the door.

A tweetup means two things: it is a series of activities and speakers, often clustered around a pivotal event (ie, rocket launch), whose goings-on will be shared with the rest of the world via Twitter, but it is also an opportunity for tweeps who are already engaged with your brand independently to meet one another and form face-to-face friendships and connections. Online social networks often grow best out of preexisting in-person networks, but online interactions prior to face-to-face meetings can be pivotal, especially when the interactions all center around one topic of interest. Putting faces to Twitter handles and having several consecutive days to hang out in the Twent, at the visitor complex, and often in group housing strengthens relationships created online and can lead to discoveries of other shared interests (see polymath dorks, above). This doesn’t mean you need to bunk your visitors on-site, you just need to give them opportunities to interact with like-minded people through and around your activities.

Finally, engagement after the fact is vital to keeping the magic alive. In our case, NASA Tweetup alums have groups on LinkedIn and Facebook, and Twitter lists created for the event exist in perpetuity, continually enabling keeping in touch. How is your museum keeping in touch with the people who have had an experience at your institution? Do you have an on-site or online comment board? What about forums? How are visitors using your social networking sites? Are they returning to your website? Are they returning to your museum? And what are they saying to each other–and about you? Will you listen?

5. Engage your “D-Drinkers”

In grad school, during our museum audiences class, one of our guest speakers was a marketing expert. He told us that beer companies look at their buyers in terms of grades of drinkers: “A-Drinkers” don’t buy a lot of beer, and not a lot from any one company, whereas “D-Drinkers” both buy a lot of beer and buy a lot of beer from one brand.  Beer companies want to market to these D-Drinkers, since A-Drinkers probably won’t be converted over anyway, so why waste the effort? Keeping the heaviest consumers brand-loyal is more beneficial in the long run.

Now, this sounds like a strategy for preaching to the choir. But as far as museums are concerned, in my experience, when a person is “dorky” about a subject–that is, really deeply and passionately involved in it personally, professionally, and otherwise, be it museums, computers, the Civil War, sailing, or whatnot–it is rarely the only subject about which someone is dorky. I am a self-proclaimed museum dork; hence the grad degree, the overly-ambitious blog, the six different jobs this time last year. But I am also a recent convert to the ways of space dorkery, thanks in part to keeping company with people who really enjoy space and aerospace engineering, and in part to NASA and its winning ways on Twitter, and in part simply to the general appeal and excitement of space, space travel, and exploration. The other attendees at the tweetup were similarly-minded “polymath dorks,” people who are passionate about, say, space and dragon boat racing, or space and burlesque, or space and civic engagement. These space dorks, these D-Drinkers of space, weren’t just sharing their amazing experiences and knowledge with other space dorks, but were blasting it out to followers who might instead share their other passions. Most people don’t simply belong to one community of thought. Through your “D-Drinkers,” you both keep your frequent consumers brand-loyal and start to engage the people in other communities of practice as well.

6. Don’t be boring

This tip arises from the last day I was in Cape Canaveral, sitting on the sofa at Jupiter House with a fellow tweep, watching NASA TV. After the rebroadcast of the first day of the tweetup itself, the next program was about the history of the shuttle program. Following upon the excitement and joy of the tweetup that were evident even three days later, even through a TV screen, this program, full of numbers, facts, and monotone narration, seemed barren. Sure, they were interesting facts and numbers, but I would have changed the channel if I’d stumbled on it alone. Sure, the numbers are interesting, but why? Is it bigger than a breadbox? What does it mean for the VAB to be 129 million cubic feet? It’s an impressive number, but what could fit inside it? What does 4 Gs feel like? Again, go back to #1 on this list: people need a place to hang their hat in your content.

This feeds into the last point–the most important one:

7. Don’t be afraid to share your passion

Dr. Waleed Abdalati, NASA’s chief scientist and one of the most impassioned speakers I’ve had the pleasure of hearing in a long time, told us shortly before the launch that “If it drains you, it’s wrong. If it excites you, it’s right.” Does what you’re working on excite you? Do you occasionally jump up and down and resist the urge to yell “This is the coolest thing EVER!” when you’re at your museum? Don’t hold that in. Don’t hold that back. Let it come out in your wall text, your programs, the way you talk about your work and the way you speak to your visitors. Your passion will fuel their passion–and, as Bill Nye (yes, that one) said about the Atlas V rocket that launched Juno on its way to Jupiter, “It’s the passion that makes it go.” Let it be the passion that makes your museum go, and let your visitors share in your joy.

Keep an eye on this space–on Saturday afternoon, four recent Tweetup alums will be visiting the National Building Museum with me to help restart the Museums365 project. Indeed, it is their passion that makes this blog go.

Thanks to @tim846, @datachick, @WomenintheAir, @dpmckenzie, @terilee007, and @rtphokie for their thoughts and advice, and to @NASATweetup for four of the best days of my life.

A longer hiatus than expected

You can’t fail a museum. —Frank Oppenheimer

Sometimes life gets in the way. Sometimes life REALLY gets in the way.

It’s been almost a year since my last post. In that time, I’ve run a half-marathon, gone to my first AAM conference, finished grad school, worked 6 different jobs at 5 different institutions, and have finally settled in for the next seven months as a law enforcement/judges educator and online outreach project coordinator at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where I get to save the world every single day.

I work here!

USHMM, Washington, DC. Image credit North Carolina Council on the Holocaust.

In the last year, I’ve done a lot of thinking about museums as part of my job-searching soul-searching. What is it that fascinates me so much about them? My relationship with museums has changed as I’ve left grad school and gone on to work as an evaluator, educator, researcher, marketer, and camp counselor in a very short period of time, as I’ve seen institutions hungering to be more than they are right now, to reach out and have visitors come who are just as passionate as the staff about what the institution has to offer.  I think it’s just made me fall more deeply in love with the idea of the museum as a place that brings people together, that allows us to explore our collective humanity and challenge our misconceptions about history, about ourselves, and about each other.

My relationship with museums has also changed as I spend more time downtown: the boy’s brother stored his suitcase at the Freer during the Rally to Restore Sanity, I popped into American History for a long drink of water during a training run around the mall, my family met up outside the National Gallery to take pictures after I graduated from GW. Museums are not just a part of my intellectual and professional life, they’re a part of my everyday.

As a working girl, I’ve found myself having less and less time to visit museums other than my own. I want to change that. I miss the inspiration for my own work and stimulation of my curiosity about things other than European history and the American justice system (much as I adore my job and the fact that I do get to study these things every day–and get paid to do it!), and most of all I miss talking to other people about museums. I miss not being the only one in a room whose eyes sparkle when talking about a new exhibit or a previously undiscovered piece of an old favorite, who talks too fast and with her hands because the excitement is just that hard to contain.

To that end, welcome to the Museums 365 reboot. We’ll be starting where we left off and trying again to see all of DC’s museums between now and next Valentine’s Day. I can’t wait.

Laura DiSciullo

The wonderful museum-and-animal-loving Laura!

Please also welcome the wonderful Laura DiSciullo, a grad school classmate of mine, who blogs at Informed Humane. She’ll be adding her thoughts and views on her museum visits, and somewhere between the two of us we’ll see all those museums in the next 365 days.

Now soliciting suggestions for the next first museum visit!

An unexpected hiatus

We were all set to finish the National Portrait Gallery on February 6–then it snowed, in historic proportions.  We were all set to finish it again yesterday after driving back from Monticello (where else would two musem-loving history geeks go for Valentine’s Day?)–then it snowed in Charlottesville and we got back after closing time. This coming weekend, Boyfriend is out of town, so stay tuned for the NPG review in late February.

In the meantime, feel free to check out my review on ExhibitFiles of an absolutely amazing exhibit at Monticello, an all-digital contextualization of the Revolutionary War era and ideas about liberty. Also, check out Monticello. I realize it’s not a DC museum, but I’ll be reviewing it here later this week anyway since the Smith Education Center is phenomenal and pretty close to my ideal of what an exhibition should be.

We’ll be back!

Museum #3: The Newseum

Boyfriend and I have been living in the area long enough to remember the Newseum in its first incarnation in Rosslyn, VA, just across the Potomac from DC–which, amusingly, would be within walking distance of our current respective houses. The folks at the Freedom Forum, the organization that promotes free speech and freedom of the press that serves as the Newseum’s primary funder, have managed to secure a fabulous piece of real estate for the new Newseum: 555 Pennsylvania Avenue, with vistas overlooking the Mall and the Capitol.


The Newseum. Picture courtesy of the New York Times

Fortunately, this fact was not lost on the people who designed the exhibits.  After visitors exit the gigantic glass elevators on the sixth floor (yes, sixth. Another huge museum.) the panorama of Pennsylvania Avenue is spread out before them through floor-to-ceiling glass windows and accessible via a balcony.  Not only does the Capitol vista make a great background for pictures, the museum also uses the city itself as an artifact.  The balcony along the avenue tells the story of “America’s Main Street” in words and pictures, from its humble beginnings as a pig-infested muddy road to the parade route for inaugurations and protests alike.  For locals who use Pennsylvania Avenue as a regular thoroughfare, this exhibit added a touch of magic and historical gravitas to one of the great diagonal streets. If it’s warm enough out, make sure you get out on the balcony for the exhibit (and the photo).

The Newseum is one of the few museums in Washington, DC, that charges admission. They seem to be quite proud of the fact that they do not take federal money, saying so prominently near their postings of ticket prices.  In a city with so many museums that are either entirely free or do not charge admission to see their permanent collections, this museum had better be worth the $20 it costs for one adult admission. (Given the size of the museum, it’s a good thing each ticket is valid for two consecutive days.) The private funders who support the Newseum are featured throughout the museum, next to the exhibits that are named for them, by way of touch-screen video presentations.  While this is an interesting way to provide more information about your funders, don’t spend too much time on any of these–what you actually want to see is in the exhibits, not outside them.

One of the issues that Boyfriend and I have been discussing rather heatedly in the week since we went to the Newseum is the nature of the “artifact” materials they present. Boyfriend goes to museums in search of tangible things, seeking, as he says, experiences he can’t have anywhere else or objects he can’t find anywhere else. In the case of the Newseum, a museum devoted to news media, this is a rather tough standard. After all, a lot of the news that is presented can be found in a quick internet search for video clips or of newspaper archives. Why should I bother schlepping out to downtown DC if I can find all of this from the warmth and comfort of my own home, especially if it’s the middle of January?

If we take the media itself as an artifact–a television broadcast (the JFK/Nixon debates, Nixon’s speeches during the Watergate scandal–most things related to Nixon, come to think of it, for 20-somethings like us), a radio program (the Edward R. Murrow broadcasts from the Second World War that are featured during the “4-D” movie), information that exists in ones and zeroes or over the airwaves rather than on paper or in a format we can hold–then this place is chock full of them, and, unlike how we would find them on the internet, they are curated and placed, to a certain extent, in their context within history and the larger scope of journalism. This is where Boyfriend and I differ, but I don’t think our respective feelings on the matter changed our overall notions about the museum.

Like I’ve mentioned before, Boyfriend and I also feel very differently about technology in general, and there’s a lot of it in the Newseum. There are fifteen video screens, five of them off of one exhibit. Touchscreens abound, whether providing a closer look at documents, playing broadcast footage from newscasts, or allowing visitors to cast their votes on questions about journalistic freedom and journalism on the internet. This is an area that I’m exploring with one of my graduate classes this semester, and I enjoy the fact that there is a space in the museum for visitors to share their opinions on big issues and see how other visitors before them have viewed the same questions. Boyfriend questions if you couldn’t make better use of the space by moving them online only. Readers, what say you? How do you feel about using technology in museums to do things other than impart information?

As it turns out, our recommendations for exhibits are the ones that have artifacts in a traditional sense. Who knew?

The Newseum in a Nutshell: Museums365’s Top Five

  • Today’s Front Pages

Don’t miss this one because, well, you can’t miss it.  A front page from a newspaper from each state in the USA is displayed in full color outside the Newseum along Pennsylvania Avenue, and several more, as well as papers from other countries, are displayed on the sixth floor across from the Pennsylvania Avenue vista. Fascinating to see how the news is reported across the world and what is important where. I came to see this–the outside part, anyway–long before I went to the Newseum proper: once on the day after Election Day 2008, and once on the day after Inauguration Day 2009, both times with my camera, and both times I was not alone. More than the news as artifact here, this is news as community-builder. If you can’t go in, at least take a swing by and see what the nation has to say for itself–and see who else has come to look with you.

  • News History Gallery

By far the largest exhibition space in the Newseum, and the most content-heavy. Don’t be foiled by the fact that it’s on the mysterious fifth floor–resist the urge to turn back down the stairs after you get off the elevator on the sixth floor and immediately head back down to the 9/11 exhibit on the fourth floor just yet. Take a left, then a right, go past the newspapers, and continue around to the right. In the center of this large, dark gallery is a display case with three-deep pull-out drawers, each with an artifact newspaper going back to the origin of print and ending in 2008. Around the center are artifact cases, heavy on text and heavy on issues. What does freedom of the press mean? What happens when government gets in the way? What about when it gets in the way of military operations? What does Steven Colbert have to say about the Newseum? Don’t miss the section about Watergate, and spend your time in the gallery, rather than in the four theatres that come off it. This exhibit deserves even more space and prominence in the museum.

  • G-Men and Journalists (temporary, but extended through 2011, thank goodness)

The Newseum is a museum with a mission: “educate the public about the value of a free press in a free society.” With sponsorship from many news companies, despite the stated independence from any of them, it is difficult not to have this mission come out in exhibits that talk about how great journalists and the media are, and often the exhibits tend to self-aggrandizement in this regard. Not so “G-Men and Journalists,” which explores the complicated relationship between the FBI and the news media in the FBI’s first hundred years. Much of what struck me so deeply about this exhibit was that, having grown up largely in Montgomery County, Maryland, Boyfriend and I were both in high school during the D.C. sniper shootings–and here was an exhibit, or part of an exhibit, about my neighbors and county-mates, how we lived in fear for a month during my junior year.  The exhibit did not shy away from the “white box truck” rumor (supposedly the sniper was shooting people from a white box truck) spread by the media that wound up interfering with the process of tracking down the snipers, who were eventually found in a blue sedan, the back of which is exhibited in the Newseum. Indeed, the whole exhibit is presented even-handedly and candidly discusses issues of news media and crime. The Unabomber’s cabin is down here as well.

  • September 11th

I bawled. Boyfriend clenched his fists. On one side, a wall with newspaper headlines from September 12, 2001, including the San Francisco Chronicle: “Bastards!” In the middle, the twisted, burned, battered antenna from the World Trade Center, surrounded by a timeline of that day. Behind the wall of news, a ten-minute video about journalists covering 9/11–which turned out to be the first time I’d seen footage of the second plane hitting the tower, having avoided watching the news for a long time after the attacks. Watch the little ones. Boyfriend and I would like to see this someday be incorporated into a larger exhibit on the role of the news media, since there does seem to be a decent amount of jingoism at play here, but for now, less than ten years out, it’s enough just to go, reflect on that awful day, and ponder the wreckage of the antenna.

  • Berlin Wall

The exhibit itself? Love it or leave it. “Electronic labels” tell the story of the wall as artifact and in its historical context via film and audio, but that’s not the story here. Look at the wall as you enter, graffiti’d and hopeful and full of color. Now go to the other side. The wall is blank. Look behind you. That’s a guard tower, watching you watching the blank wall. Now consider what it meant to live in East Berlin before 1989. This is an artifact, this was a way of life. The wall itself speaks loud and clear.

For the Wee’uns

  • NBC interactive newsroom

Think you have what it takes to be part of a news team? Try out your skills here, through touchscreens and the “Be a News Reporter” interactive station where you get to read the news.

  • Five Freedoms gallery

Learn about the five freedoms of the First Amendment (speech, press, religion, assembly, petition), the cases that have challenged them, and what they look like today. Test your knowledge of how far these freedoms go.

  • First Dogs

Boyfriend hates puppies. Rather, he doesn’t think this exhibit has any place in the Newseum. But hey, it’s a heavy museum in a lot of ways, so why not have a little levity (and some really cute presidential pooches)?

I’ll be going back at the end of the month, so stay tuned for updates to this post.

Metro stop: Archives/Navy Memorial/Penn Quarter (Yellow/Green line)

Hours: 9 am-5 pm

On the web:

Museum #2: The Smithsonian Castle

When I was an intern at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum during the 2008-9 academic year, I used to walk to and from my office across the Mall.  Depending on the time of day, I’d be stopped by several tourists who wanted to know, “Where’s the Smithsonian?” As we learn from Night at the Museum 2, the Smithsonian is actually 19 different museums, including the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York.  The short answer to the question, aside from “It’s all around you! What do you want to see?”, is this beautiful building.

The Smithsonian Castle. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Newsdesk

My relationship to this building, prior to our M365 trip, was a spotty one. On nice days during the first summer of my internship, the other USHMM interns and I would eat in the Enid A. Haupt Garden in the backyard. I’m pretty sure I’d ducked in once or twice to get out of the rain. It makes a good landmark, and, again, a good directional point for tourists.  I didn’t realize just how much I was missing until Boyfriend and I stopped by at the end of our last NMNH day.

First off, the building itself is a gorgeous space.  It was designed by James Renwick, Jr., and completed in 1855.  The exterior is made of red Seneca sandstone, from right up the road in Seneca Creek, Maryland.  Back then, the castle was the Smithsonian: it housed research facilities, artifacts, a lecture hall, and the Secretary of the Smithsonian and his family.

Today, the Castle serves as a jumping-off point for exploring the rest of the Smithsonian museums.  Among the highlights in that vein are:

  • a funny and delightfully irreverent orientation film narrated by Ben Stiller
  • a scale model of the National Mall and vicinity
  • artifacts representing the collections of sixteen of the Smithsonian museums

The artifact cases were one of our favorite parts of the Castle.  Since we went at the very beginning of the M365 project, the cases gave us a glimpse of what the next 51 weekends were going to hold for us.  From postage stamps to moccasins and vases to Yoruba figurines, these cases are a great way to whet your appetite and figure out where to start your journey through “America’s Treasure Chest.”

Unfortunately, the other exhibits in the West Wing leading up to the artifact walls struck us as somewhat tired.  An orchid display next to one information desk and an exhibit on scientific artists in residence at the Smithsonian had labels in need of care, and, in the case of the orchid, at least a cleaning and visual update.  We hope future exhibits will have the kind of attractive power and visual appeal of the artifact cases.  This is not to say the subject wasn’t interesting–I certainly didn’t know anything about scientific illustrators, and found the four men whose work was highlighted (as well as their work, both in two-dimensions and plaster casts of fish) eye-opening to the practice of science in the early days of the Smithsonian. Worth a look, especially if you’re on your way to Natural History.

Also, there’s a crypt. James Smithson’s crypt, to be exact. After you fellow museum geeks pay homage to him, make sure you read the wall text about how an English scientist who had never been to the United States came to be the impetus for the founding of the research institution and museum complex we know and love, as well as how Smithson’s body, buried in Italy, came to reside in DC.  A passage from Smithson’s will reads:

In the case of the death of my said Nephew without leaving a child or children, or the death of the child or children he may have had under the age of twenty-one years or intestate, I then bequeath the whole of my property subject to the Annuity of One Hundred pounds to John Fitall, & for the security & payment of which I mean Stock to remain in this Country, to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.

We thank you for it.

Other Amenities at the Castle

  • Castle Café, which has an expensive but delicious menu, including salads, sandwiches, espresso, and gelato. Become a Smithsonian Resident Associate and the food is 10% off.
  • Two information desks with brochures about the museums and very helpful staff.
  • The Castle opens at 8:30 am, a full hour and a half before the museums, so early birds have plenty of time to get oriented and pumped for their museum trips.