Monthly Archives: August 2011

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

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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 montgomerycountymd.gov)

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.