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#MuseumWalkabout Summer 2017 (Post 4)

After far too long a wait, I’ve arrived at the final post of my #MuseumWalkabout Summer 2017 series. If you haven’t read the previous posts, I suggest you start here for context.


After the Children’s Museum, I went back out into the rain– regretting not having carried an umbrella– and walked the several blocks to the Institute of Contemporary Art.

It took me longer than I’d like to admit to realize that all the art was on the top floor, but eventually I made it up. Looking at the different exhibits, I was especially taken with the exhibition of pieces by Nari Ward, which I found deeply resonant and aesthetically pleasing all at once.

Three sisters…

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I noted the stark difference in the appearance of this museum from the one I attended the day before. Great white walls and people quietly shuffling about. Quite different from the wonderful tumult of the Children’s Museum… Even around pieces that were very playful.

I recently started working at the Edward M Kennedy Institute for the US Senate, a place where we’re trying to educate visitors about democracy– something that tends to be very noisy and even bumptious at times, which is something that we would like to convey to our visitors.

The decor of the main area is a bit monochromatic, however:

The space has potential to convey that vibrancy that is a cornerstone of democracy. I’m wondering how little pops of color could make a difference in the mood and tone of the space. I jokingly talk with my coworkers about erecting a “giant pink statue of Ted Kennedy” in the lobby area, perhaps a commission from Katharina Fritsch?

More realistically, I just wonder about what effects we could create with some movable casing or something along those lines in bright colors: maybe something in a Nickelodeon orange? The serious grey-and-blue tones of the institute would still permeate, but maybe something that, while the topic we are covering is very serious, we are encouraging our visitors to engage in serious play to learn a little more deeply about the topic.

Finally, as a capstone to my day of nonstop museums, I went to a #Museumhive event, where the (virtual) guest of honor was the awesome museum educator Emily Graslie.

I was, by that point, basically tweeted out, but I did share one comment that Emily made, because I thought it was awesome and hilarious and actually insightful, and was actually retweeted by Emily, which was a nerdy little fanboy moment.

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#MuseumWalkabout Summer 2017 (Post 3)

Third post recounting my adventures during #MuseumWalkabout Summer 2017, during which I attempted to hit as many museums as I could in a single day, and to fill all interstitial time with museum-related stuff. Post 1 can be found here, and Post 2 can be found here. I’d recommend starting from the beginning.

Having noted the ads for the Tea Party Museum and Ships, I thought for a moment about checking it out. It had been on my original “maybe” list for the day.


But because part of the museum experience is outdoors, and the rain hadn’t let up, I decided not to. I did snap the above pic, and noted an awesome piece of programming that I’d love to check out some time:



Every museum is desperately chasing the Millennials. This might be a bit much for some millennials– my millennial wife said she wouldn’t go if I paid her– but to me, it combines so many great attractors. Food and booze– things people are already going out and paying for anyway. Dancing and singing. A little history lesson. And millennials keep telling museums– both with their attendance and with how they respond to visitor surveys– that activities that you can do with a couple friends are very important to them as an age cohort.

With the right (slightly nerdy, adventurous about food, enjoy a drink) friends, this would be amazing.

Now it's time for a freakin' Boston Landmark!

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So, I went on to the Boston Children’s Museum.

I’d seen the Hood Milk bottle before, and heard a lot of positive things about the museum from people, but I’d never been before, not having children, and preferring to go to parks and restaurants when visiting my friends who do.

That said, it was an amazing experience. Bright, colorful, lots of different types of activities and exhibits… I saw a girl do a back handspring in one exhibit, seemingly just because she had the space. The Children’s Museum engaged kids at all sorts of levels, inviting the most un-museum-like anarchy… and everyone seemed to be having a blast, kids and parents alike.

And it was loud. Woo boy, was it loud.

There’s a certain developmental period during which many children, when really enjoying themselves, just run around screaming. This developmental stage was well-represented.

I was really struck by how much fun the adults who let themselves engage with the exhibits and interactives were having. While the learning outcomes are designed for young people, the actions that help us learn that mastery of the world (whether splashing water, building with blocks, or learning about basic science), never fully lose their FUN.

I sat on the floor in a room full of blocks, building a tower myself, and watched the parents who were aiding their children, or even just working beside them– their faces looked engaged. They were having a grand old time. Then I watched the parents sitting on the benches along the wall– they weren’t engaged. They weren’t having fun. This was something their kids enjoyed, and they… they sort of sat, and watched, and looked tired.

After some participant-observer time, I eventually got sucked completely into participant mode. The tower I built was wicked tall, yo.

My masterpiece of block engineering isn’t in the picture, but these are the blocks in question:

#Keva #blocks are amazing.

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Because I was livetweeting my observations throughout the day, I would occasionally get feedback from people that shaped my thinking over the course of my walkabout. Around this point, my old friend and former roommate Brendan, who now works for the Association of Children’s Museums, made a very apt observation:

There was something that the Boston Children’s Museum did very well that you seldom see at adult- or even family-centric museums, that I really enjoyed and appreciated: they not only designed exhibits with specific learning outcomes in mind– many if not all museums do that– but they actually center those learning outcomes, literally rendering them visible on the wall:

This was my biggest takeaway from the Children’s Museum. They were very deliberate about the learning outcomes of each exhibit. Which makes sense– people take their kids to children’s museums because they offer a fun opportunity for learning. It always has to be more overt than, say, a playground or park. Because those are free and hyperlocal. To get parents to come with children across town, and plunk down money… they need to be doing more than just playing.

But the thing is, children are never “just playing.” Ludic learning is always inherently a part of play for kids. (And for adults, too, if you can just get them to get over themselves and play.)  The service that the Children’s Museum offers is twofold: a safe, fun place for children to play, explore, and learn, but even more importantly, a place for parents to learn about their kid, to have the process of their child’s learning highlighted and explicated for them. The second part is the real value.

But in doing that, they’re doing something really interesting: they’re putting visitor experience itself on display. Imagine other museums doing that. An exhibit that reflects your experience as a museum-goer back to you, in a way… Points you toward thinking about how you interact with an exhibit and what that can tell you about you.

Museum-going, even for us grown-ups, is never only about learning about the outside world. It seems to me that highlighting that– giving visitors a guide for how to learn about themselves and their friends from an exhibit… That’s a good model for proving the value of your museum to the visitor.

After all, the Children’s Museum is, for the children who visit it, basically a giant, amazing playground. The parents pay to have their child’s play framed for them.

Next up: Final post in the series. The ICA and MuseumHive!!!

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#MuseumWalkabout Summer 2017 (Post 2)

This is my second post about what I’m calling, informally, #MuseumWalkabout Summer 2017. Read here for the first part.


Design Museum Boston may have been the biggest disappointment of my #MuseumWalkabout. Which is a shame– it’s a neat concept. A “nomadic museum” that does design-based installations throughout the city. The museum as a truly integrated element of the urban landscape. So much to love there. Unfortunately…


I don’t know if there was once a gift shop at that location, or even a temporary one, or if they have offices in that building that weren’t marked or accessible, or what. But Google, my dear, dear Google, misled me. I am disappoint.

(True story– I was fiercely loyal to Mapquest even after Google Maps came out, until Mapquest gave me bad directions driving to a friend’s funeral in Cincinnati, and I have never used it since. Mapping services are so integral to our lives, so important, that one bad user experience can put us off them forever. This isn’t nearly in the neighborhood of that experience, but it does make me wonder– how do you report to Google that a location they’re reporting doesn’t exist?)

There was nothing but a (fairly nice and interesting) window display. I realized I was very near the Rose Kennedy Greenway, and decided to watch some people interact with some public art. The first piece I went to was “The Meeting House” by Mark Reigelman. The piece has some folding chairs next to it that seemed like good attractors. A punk mother sat and rocked her infant’s stroller. Two finance bros had a chat. Some kids were running around, and of course there were several teens and tourists with cell phones out, taking pictures and selfies. (No judgement, obviously…)

And then the rain picked up.

And then the rain was almost pouring, all within minutes.

I ducked into the Boston Intercontinental, which I’d been in once before when I needed a quiet place near South Station to take a call from a journalist. I also remembered from that time that the hotel had a large number of outlets, which was good, because my phone was already low on juice.


I’d already been thinking about how advertising and publicity prime visitors for what sort of experience they could expect at your museum, and these banner ads– strangely encased, for some reason– let you know that the Boston Tea Party Museum And Ships were a local historical point of interest (no mention of the fact that they’re not in the correct location at all, because of landfill), and right around the corner from the Intercontinental.

I had a delicious A.B.C.D.E.L.T sandwich at RumBa, one of the hotel’s several bars and restaurants, and charged my phone while reading about– of course– museums.

Link for the curious. We’ve been debating the pros and cons of dialog-focused exhibits where I work, and it was passed on to me via a coworker.

My phone was still relatively low, so I moved on to a second article:

Another link for the curious. Readers Digest version: it can be done, somewhat imperfectly, but better than you might think, but within limitations. You’ll probably have to create a finding aid elsewhere, whether in Archivists’ Toolkit or a Word doc.

And if anyone reading this really was legitimately curious, get in touch with me and I can arrange to cook you dinner, because you’re the kind of person my wife and I don’t meet enough of.

Next up: The Boston Children’s Museum!!!


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#MuseumWalkabout Summer 2017 (Post 1)

NB: Upon beginning to write this post, I realized it was much longer than I could reasonably expect someone else to read. For this reason, I will be writing posts about yesterday for the next few days.

A lot of my department was out yesterday, and I’m trying to do a lot of thinking about museums and exhibits, what works and why, so I decided to visit several museums in quick succession– a sort of “Museum Walkabout.” I also decided to broadcast my activities over the course of the day over social media.  I’m using this space to bring those posts together.

I wanted to visit as many museums as I could take in. I focused on Boston’s busy and developing waterfront district.

I awoke at 6:30, and by 7:30 I was plugging away on email and other tasks I’d perform later in the day if I’d been going into the office.

After a couple hours of that, I walked to the train station. I was struck, even while walking in my town, by how much Americana-themed stuff is around Boston. Working at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, a lot of designers tend to advocate for more Americana in our design.

But the greater Boston area is so overwhelmed with Americana. Even in, like, mens’ rooms and stuff. It’s almost as bad as it is in Philadelphia, here. And to me, that’s not creating a visual identity. It’s just more of the same.


Thinking about that as I walked to the train station, I plopped into my seat on the train and began to read an article by John Falk that a friend had recently given me.

#MuseumWalkabout #NowReading

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It got me thinking about a class I took with Brenda Dervin at Ohio State years ago:

Falk talks about visitors to museums having “identity related needs” that motivate their visits to museums. The museum is somewhere we come to reflect the world to us, but we expect it to do so in ways that address how we see ourselves and why we visit.

Something  about this reminds me of what Dr. Dervin talked about– about sensemaking being how people bridge gaps in understanding… that it’s always, when multiple people are involved, a dialogical process…

Brenda Dervin’s illustration of her sensemaking methodology.

As I continued to read, Falk gave a typology of different sorts of visitors: Explorers, Facilitators, Spiritual Pilgrims, etc.

This got me thinking about how we prime the pump, and let people know what kind of museum experience they’re looking for:

A museum that doesn’t have strong branding, a strong identity– and especially any museum that isn’t of a standard type (“Art Museum,” “Natural History Museum,” etc.)– the visitor won’t know how to expect to behave when they get there. They won’t know what kind of experience to expect. They might even not come, because they don’t understand what kind of visitor experience they will have, and figure they’re not missing anything.

I’m someone who works in the nonprofit sector. Almost always have been. Even when I worked as a temp, I requested only temp work at nonprofits. I instinctively bristle when people start talking about “branding” and “messaging” and “identity” as a corporate concept. But at the end of the day, museums need these things.

I got off the train at North Station, and headed through the streets of the North End until I arrived at my first destination:

First stop on #MuseumWalkabout. I don't know if I have ever been….

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I have to admit, my initial impression of the Paul Revere House wasn’t especially positive. Well, it was cheap at five dollars, so that impression was very good. But my first impression upon entering the house was that it very much was reflective of typical Historic House Museum problems: No photos! No Touching! There was one small pot that an (of course costumed) interpreter told us belonged to Paul Revere, and a child’s chair that belonged to his son.

Rather than this transporting me back in time to the days of the Revere clan, it just made me look around, practice unenjoyable habits of discernment: how much is real or original? How much is period? How much is 20th century repro? We as visitors were held back behind a line, unable to engage with the house. And so we shuffled along to the next room.

Which was even worse– plastic food on the table only further distanced me from the “historic” experience of the house. We went up a narrow stairwell– don’t open that door! You can’t go on the third floor!– and when we had arrived on the second floor, we’d traveled in time at least a generation or two. I think it was Early Republic era, but I wouldn’t swear to it. I’d checked out.

Despite the fact that we were on the second floor, a very modern door took us out to a catwalk, which connected to a second building, where there were modern restrooms and some small exhibits. There, I found the first thing I got really excited about:

The diorama of Revere’s workshop let me do what the historic house seemed bound and determined not to let me do: to imagine the living past, to think about the people and the lifeways that made this location relevant. I took photos of it, pressing my cell phone to the glass. It was the first thing I’d gotten really excited about.

And this was a theme that reoccurred to me several times during the course of the day, in different forms: the idea that in some ways, simulation can be more powerful than recreation. Our inner critic always tries to pick at supposed verisimilitude. It’s vexing, like an itchy scab.

Just as with robots and computer animation, it seems like it’s better to stay clearly on the right side of the uncanny valley when trying to give people an experience that’s evocative of the past.

Or, to put it another way:

Then I went outside, where I found the most exciting thing on the grounds– and the biggest missed opportunity:


…I realize that they were basically excavating an area that had been an alley used for drainage, but here was real archeological work being done on site, looking for real items, lost to history! I couldn’t believe they weren’t highlighting it more. They should be running programs around it, and setting up some seating so that people could sit and observe the work.

That said, the volunteer I talked to was very friendly and helpful, and was pleased as punch to talk about the project.

Next: Stop 2: The Boston Design Museum.

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