Hanging Out in Philadelphia

Posted on September 5th, 2019 by

A blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. You can read more posts by Marvin here.


I spent the last week in August in Philly.

It wasn’t exactly a summer vacation, more of a busman’s holiday. I had been invited to attend a feedback session on the Community Catalyst Initiative being developed by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). This was followed, two days later by the annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History. In between, I had a chance to visit the Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes exhibit at the Franklin Institute, the recently developed Philadelphia Holocaust Memorial Plaza, the Barnes Foundation and the new Museum of the American Revolution. I skipped NMAJH, Eastern State Penn and the Philadelphia Museum of Art on this trip, because I had visited those fine museums earlier this year.  I also met with former JMMers Avi Decter and Melissa Yaverbaum, who send warm regards to all their friends in Baltimore.

What did I learn from my sojourn to the city of brotherly love? Let me start with the friendly neighborhood Spiderman (pictured above) – one of several life-size figures in the exhibit positioned as photo opportunities. While the exhibit contained many original pieces of artwork, original artifacts from the movies, film clips and interactive devices, it was these statues that were the clear stars of the show. People came to the exhibit because they were interested in the stories of the Marvel characters, but they were even more interested in seeing themselves as part of that story. In many ways, the “theme” of the week was self-reflection in public spaces.

That theme could certainly be found in the demonstration of Augmented Reality (AR) in the Rare Books room of the Free Library of Philadelphia. There we were treated to a prototype of a new software package that combined a search for clues with AR icons as a reward. For example, finding three clues related to Edgar Allan Poe would make a squawking 3-D raven appear on your screen. Visitors could then put themselves into the picture, appearing to hold or pet the raven. The software, designed by Night Kitchen Interactive in Philadelphia, is something we might think about incorporating into a future core exhibit. I found an earlier version of what was demonstrated at the library at this online site.

The idea of a virtual presence was also an important part of the development of the new Philadelphia Holocaust Memorial Plaza.

Built on the site of America’s first Holocaust Memorial (a statue by sculptor Nathan Rappaport) right on the Ben Franklin Parkway, the plaza allows visitors to access the voices of Holocaust survivors tied to both the textual and aesthetic elements of the space. These pillars, for example, compare the US Constitution to the legal and social systems of the Third Reich. Voices accessible on your phone via the iWalk app allow you to hear witnesses of the deprivation of liberties in Germany. Yet another idea we might build on.

The Museum of the American Revolution is well worth a visit. While it remains at its core, a museum of military history, it goes out of its way to tell the battle story through multiple perspectives: loyalists as well as rebels, native peoples and African Americans, and women in many different roles. It benefits from a corps of knowledgeable docents who are proficient at tailoring the experience to the interests of their audience.

This map of North America at the start of the Revolution is typical of the scale and scope of their presentations.

Lest you think my week was all fun and games, there was serious business at both conferences. The IMLS workshop offered participants the opportunity to test and review new tools under development for helping museums engage with their communities. Tools like “Journey Maps” (sample below) help institutions to track and evaluate projects that involve substantial community engagement over a period of years.

We’ll be using this type of tool to map the development of our Evolution Plan.

The AASLH Conference was co-sponsored by the Sites of Conscience organization, an international coalition of more than 275 historic sites and museums dedicated to “turning memory into action.” The title of this year’s conference, “What are We Waiting For?”, was a reference to the desire of much of the history museum world to engage in the tough work of swimming in the troubled waters of our times, paired with the fear of drowning in contemporary controversies.

One of the best workshops I attended at the conference was on “dialogic conversations” – a methodology for engaging visitors in difficult conversations in the hope of opening up channels for discourse in a polarized nation. Hint: the method involves asking questions that make the visitor a part of the story. Some of this thinking may be incorporated into future JMM exhibits and programs.

So last summer was Houdini and this summer was Spiderman – I can truly say I get my best ideas just “hanging around.”


 

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How do we know what we know?

Posted on August 5th, 2019 by

This post was written by JMM School Program Coordinator Paige Woodhouse. To read more posts from Paige, click here!


How do we know what we know?

This is a big question. It’s bigger than big. It’s enormous.

So how do you tackle a question like that? A conference seems like a logical place to start. In July, the Visitor Studies Association (VSA) hosted its annual conference in Detroit Michigan titled “Ways of Knowing.” This question, “How do we know what we know?” was the question that the keynote speaker, Dr. Katrina Bledsoe, opened the conference with before diving into contemporary thoughts in the field of evaluation.

Conferences are exciting places. They harvest intriguing questions and ignite new ideas. They are a place to share success stories and struggles that happened along the way. They are places for learning. While I couldn’t attend The VSA conference in person, thanks to a new green initiative by the VSA, I attended their first-ever virtual conference. Like all conferences, there was more discussed than could possibly be written about in one blog post.

What is the Visitor Studies Association? As described on their website, VSA is “a membership organization dedicated to understanding and enhancing learning experiences in informal settings through research, evaluation, and dialogue.” So, what are informal learning settings? That’s us, JMM. Along with other museums, nature centers, historic sites, visitor centers, and zoos.

To learn from other organizations about their applications of evaluation, you have to learn about the projects they evaluated. I heard from lots of organizations that have recently undertaken interesting projects (Along with the great ways they are using evaluation to learn from them). Here’s are two examples:

“Studying Touch as a Way of Knowing in the Art Exhibition” researched how touch can be a method of interpretation for visitors interacting with artwork, specifically sculpture. The project monitored visitors’ encounters (through video recording) with artwork in the exhibit Evighetens Form (Eternity’s Form) by the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo, Norway (2016 – 2019). This project added to previous research on multi-sensory meaning-making processes. Listening to the findings of their study, I particularly enjoyed an unexpected outcome they had – visitors would going beyond gentle touching of the sculptures at times and knock on the sculptures for solidity, determining the material, and the sound that was produced.

Dr. Navaz DBhavnagri from Wayne State University spoke about “Using Museums to Promote Cultural Identity Among Yemeni Students.” This project explored how museums are places that can promote and enhance cultural identity. Working with Muslim Yemeni immigrant and refugee students across multiple visits to the Detroit Institute of Arts, as well as pre-visit and post-visit sessions, students were encouraged to make connections and express their cultural identity. Before visiting the Museum, students did a self-report on what they know and what they wanted to know. Visits to the Museum progressed with different activities. First, they went and took pictures throughout the exhibit writing comments back in the classroom about their photos and how they connected to what they took pictures of. This visit introduced students to the museum environment. Their second visit was a scavenger hunt to encourage more focused engagement with the exhibit. Their third visit encouraged them to select an object to sketch. This object needed to relate to their cultural identity. They needed to think about why they chose that object. What special meaning did it have? How was it connected to their cultural identity? This resulted in a more complex reflection and the students creating an intersection between their personal life and their cultural identity. After each visit, students would debrief their experience. They created art projects that integrated their knowledge. They considered what they learned and what new questions they have now. During this year-long projects, these students were also learning English, so translators were critical to assisting the project. At the end of the project, students presented their object and story to other students and teachers outside of their class – sharing not only their cultural identity, but their new language skills. All the materials produced through the project (photos taken with comments, collages, sketches, reflections, and presentations) were used to evaluate the project. Students moved beyond seeing the objects as “just old” to how they overlap with their own lives.

The Detroit Institute of Art has a strong collection of Arts of the Ancient Middle East and Arts of the Islamic World that students explored during their visits.

While each speaker highlighted a specific project, throughout the entire conference the theme of equity was present. How do we promote equitable evaluation? Equity, in the simplest of definitions, means fair access. Each person has access regardless of economic resources or personal traits. Every person has the right to be given equal treatment by the system.

Evaluation is often thought of as being objective. But we need to consider the ways our methodologies are shaped by underlying values. We need to consider different cultural and historical views. We need to make our research findings accessible. While measuring if the goals of a project are being met, we need to consider if the project developed in a culturally responsive way? Whose reality are we representing? Whose voice? Whose experiences?

The Detroit Zoo wanted to engage with audiences that weren’t coming to the zoo (even when offered free admission). They wanted to work with individuals who found themselves homeless and therefore needed to think about the barriers that were preventing people from visiting. When speaking about their project and evaluation, they said that evaluation for their team at the Detroit Zoo means continuously asking, “are we valuable? What is valuable about what we are doing?” The team constantly looks at communities in their neighborhood and asking who are the voices that they don’t reach and what do those communities need?

So, how do we know what we know?

We evaluate. And this takes many forms at JMM. Evaluation is not a one-size-fits-all tool. Especially when thinking about how to be equitable during the process. For the big picture, we want to make sure that what we are doing is valuable. That all our exhibits and programs reflect our mission. We seek to learn about our impact and the quality of experience we offer.

Evaluation can come to us informally through conversations, emails, and phone calls. For projects, (whether it is a public program, school group, or exhibit) we try to make evaluation part of the process.

Intern Hannah spoke with visitors about their experiences in Fashion Statement recently.

Recently, JMM’s Visitor Services Coordinator, Talia, shared how our FY2019 visitor numbers are one way that we evaluate our success. We also evaluate using surveys after public programs, or post-it notes with school groups and by observation. This summer our interns have been conducting surveys for our Fashion Statement exhibit. We are interested to see if visitors are making connections to the learning objectives we set out for the exhibit. Or, as I mentioned previously, what unexpected outcomes we may find.

So when our interns and staff are in the orientation space with clipboards asking if you would take a few minutes to fill out a form, or chat with them about your experiences, it is not just to collect data that will sit on a shelf with a checkmark beside it. It is because we genuinely want to know about you, what brought you here, how you did (or did not) connect with our exhibits. Your answers inform our decisions. We learn from them. They help us find ways so that you, the visitor, can “find yourself here.”

Conferences are inspiring. I am positive that the things I learned will trickle into projects at JMM. You can read the abstracts from all the VSA conference sessions here.


 

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Mapping Constellations

Posted on May 31st, 2019 by

A blog post by Deputy Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.


One of the many things at which Marvin excels is finding connections others might miss. You might say that he sees constellations where others see a jumble of stars. With a confession that I am not as skilled at constellation-spotting as he, I thought I’d share some connections I noticed while I was in New Orleans for the annual conference of the American Alliance of Museums.

On my first day in the city, I visited the Cabildo and the Presbytère, two neighboring Louisiana State Museums on Jackson Square. Even as I walked those halls–more than 1100 miles from Lloyd Street–still I has one foot in the JMM.

In the Cabildo’s exhibit Mapping the Crescent, featuring maps of New Orleans displayed chronologically, I envisioned the opening of our Voices of Lombard Street and wondered what kind of story we might tell with a chronological display of maps of Baltimore.

In We Love You New Orleans, I realized, again, that I have truly become a museum professional, as I gawked at the beautiful costumes and, remembering our own Fashion Statement currently in the Feldman Gallery, wondered if the lights were too high for their well-being.

At the Presbytère, as I explored the darkened warren that is Living with Hurricanes: Katrina & Beyond, I was moved by the recollections and the material culture left behind (and devastated by) a natural disaster I remember happening. But I was truly arrested by the case containing Jewish religious objects, including a tallit, shofar, electric menorah and Torah cover. (The Torah scroll itself was rendered pasul (unfit for ritual use) by the 8 feet of water the synagogue endured, and it was buried according to custom.)

Perhaps most surprising in the New Orleans museums, though, was this illustration of an astrologer costume, designed for a Mardi Gras krewe in 1932. As we prep for our future presentation of Jews in Space: Members of the Tribe in Orbit (coming in May 2020), the stereotypically Jewish features of this stargazer were a bright line in my mind constellation connecting the crescent city and charm city.

In the conference sessions themselves, the connections were perhaps less surprising:

In one of the keynote addresses, the speaker noted that 97% of Americans believe museums are educational assets for their communities, which made me think of our upcoming Jonestown festival and the way so many museums are coming together to be assets to our community.

In a session that promised 75 ideas about membership and fundraising in 60 minutes, not only did I get a lot of great ideas and reminders to bring home with me, I shared with the room about our recent campaign to bring you members in to the Museum (yes, you!) by offering you a free gift, but only when you actually came into the building.

In a session about culturally-specific museums, I learned about the International African American Museum, soon to be open in Charleston, SC. Chief curator Joy Bivens shared that the IAAM is envisioning a Center for Family History, where visitors will be able to do genealogical research using guidance from the Museum and their collections. I heard an echo of some of our own current and aspirational services to the community.

In a panel about the importance of branding, the conversation led me to jot down some notes about what it is that we do: We use Jewish stories to nurture empathy, champion human dignity, and inspire action in Maryland and beyond.

There were more, but I think I’ll leave it here: Nurturing empathy, championing human dignity, and inspiring action. That’s a constellation I can really get behind.

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