Monday, June 29, 2009

Smithsonian Conference Report Part I- Making Exhibits into Positive Social Experiences

I spent last week at a workshop run by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibit Service and Smithsonian Affiliations called "Creating Museum Exhibitions." The workshop was attended by a group of museum professionals and students from Puerto Rico and some members of the Maryland Association of Museums, the Virginia Association of Museums, and Humanities Councils that participate in the Smithsonian's "Museum on Main Street" program. The workshop was exhausting- we went to two museums a day for lectures, tours, and discussions, had homework (evaluating certain exhibits), and were assigned a group exhibit design project, which we mostly worked on at lunch and at the end of the day.

The week was very well spent. While I'd learned a fair amount of exhibit planning in grad school, hearing fresh ideas and reexamining old ones was great. I think the best part about the week was getting to meet all the curators/designers/educators/exhibit planners/fabricators/collections managers/exhibit writers/etc. etc. that work at the various Smithsonian museums and have a window into their work. Everyone we met with was generous with information and advice and happy to help us take what we saw and put it into practice at our institutions.

The first exhibit we took a look at was the new permanent Commercial Aviation Hall on the ground floor of the Air and Space Museum. I actually went to this museum so many times when I was a kid that we had to put a moratorium on visits, since it was the only place my brother ever wanted to go. I hadn't been in many years and didn't remember the old aviation hall much- apparently it was pretty forgettable. This one is not. The thing that stood out to me the most about this particular exhibit was how engaging it was, which brings me to my first "lesson of the week:"

Exhibits should be positive social experiences.

The designer for this exhibit emphasized that people learn best when they're having a good social experience, so for an exhibit to be successful, it should foster interaction and be a good thing to attend with others. That's not to say there aren't great exhibits that can be appreciated alone in quietude, but especially for this kind of show, the opportunity for engagement with others is key. One of our instructors during the week put it this way: most people who attend exhibits (especially at the Smithsonian) aren't necessarily looking for a grand learning experience or an opportunity to ponder the world-- they're looking for a successful family outing. If no one fought, fussed, or got tired, bored, or overwhelmed, then the exhibit served its purpose for them. Again, the scenario is slightly different with a different target audience, but multigenerational families are the demographic to which many museums reach out, and perhaps the one on which they can make the greatest impact.

The Commercial Aviation Hall accomplishes this on a variety of levels. It has two screens on some of its interactive touch-screen activities, so others can watch while one person plays. It has a large mirror with a "checklist" of everything required to be a stewardess in the 1950s (and it's amazing how much visitors interact with mirrors!). It has a platform you can stand on to simulate flying in a 1930s airplane-- when you press a button, the platform shakes and rattles and makes noise. It's probably big enough for two kids, but there's also plenty of room around for people to watch.

Plus, the exhibit has all the other features I like in a good air and space show- a clear narrative, cool engines, stewardess costumes (although it would be awesome if they could get the American Indian Museum to make them some mannequins), ephemera, and they even address a controversial topic- segregation in airports and on airlines. We were discussing how the exhibit could also help visitors address their fears of flying. There's a personal section at the end about current air travel that features a number of suitcases you can open and close (and I was excited to hear that even the Smithsonian sometimes buys props from Goodwill!). And to keep it current, they have a "leading edge" section at the end which is updated with the latest aviation news.

Have you been? Did you have a positive social experience? How do you feel about exhibits as "successful family outings?"

I think it's a wonderful exhibit, made even better by my chance to see the educator, curator, and designer share their thought processes. I can't wait to take my family.

And as a treat, here's a link to the youtube video of the installation of the nose of a 747 into the gallery. It's lots of fun to watch.

Photo by Thomas D. McEvoy of the "Spirit of Saint Louis" undergoing conservation at the Smithsonian in 1948, Life.

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