The Interdisciplinary Approach

Posted on July 25th, 2018 by

Blog post by JMM intern Marisa Shultz. To read more posts from JMM interns, past and present, click here.

One of my least favorite expressions in the English language is: “I’m an English major; I can’t do math.” As an former English major myself, I’ve heard this phrase a lot: in restaurants when it’s time to split the check, in classrooms when not enough copies were made, and in all of the other various places where people in the English field are asked to deal with numbers instead of letters.

I went to a liberal arts college, Gettysburg College, if you want to be specific, and at Gettysburg, I was taught to appreciate the interconnectedness of the academic disciplines. In my English classes we talked about history, linguistics, and philosophy (three fairly obvious choices), but also science, politics, fine art, religion, and, yes, even math. In my mind, being good at English and being good at math are not mutually exclusive, and sometimes even, knowledge in both is essential to navigating and understanding our world.

This is an image of Pennsylvania Hall, one of oldest buildings of Gettysburg College’s campus. Fun fact: it was used as a hospital for both sides during the Civil War.

Okay, I feel a bit better after venting about that, but what does my very specific pet peeve have to do with museums and museum design?

Perhaps there is a more formal or codified term for this, but the interdisciplinary approach is when an activity, program, tour, lesson plan, whatever it maybe, bridges the gap between one academic discipline and another. Sometimes that bridge is small: taking the time to talk about the historical context of the Holocaust while teaching a book like Number The Stars. Or maybe the bridge is a bit bigger and you’re analyzing how Lewis Carroll infused Alice in Wonderland with hidden mathematical patterns and concepts. These examples are, of course, both geared towards an English classroom, but museums can take the same approach too.

I saw several really excellent examples of the interdisciplinary approach while touring the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History and National Gallery of Art this past Friday, and I’d like to talk a little bit about one of those examples and how it was a vitalizing force for the museum.

The interns decided that we were going to take a really interesting and unique tour at the National Gallery of art entitled: Dragons in Art. I really, really like dragons, so I was super hyped to see some paintings and learn more about this motif.

Pictured above is a sculpture depicting Saint George killing a dragon. This work is rather rare, as it was made in the 1500s out of alabaster which is a particularly fragile material. Additionally, during the reign of King Henry the VIII, many sculptures of Catholic figures were destroyed; this one survived because it was in Spain at the time. This piece was one of the stops on our Dragons in Art tour.

So not only was the topic interesting, but Bela Demeter (the docent) used to work at the National Zoo as a herpetologist and more specifically he worked with the zoo’s snakes. Demeter designed this tour based upon his particular and different interests and expertise. He hand-picked the paintings and designed supplementary materials, and he brought some really interesting and unique knowledge to the tour: he could tell us about what kind of snake was in the painting, whether or not an artist had actually seen a snake or was just giving it their best guess, how the snake and dragon motifs are intertwined, and how their portrayal changes based upon culture.

He could do this because he embraced his background, and because he was willing to bridge the gap between science and fine art. What he created was a one of a kind tour, and I left having felt that I had engaged in a special experience, one that was frankly, unforgettable.

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From Game Design to Scheduling: JMM Interning is More than Meets the Eye

Posted on July 11th, 2018 by

Blog post by JMM intern Justine “Ellie” Smith. To read more posts from JMM interns, past and present, click here.

Over the course of the last five weeks I have gained valuable knowledge about the inner workings of programming and education at the JMM. Before coming to the JMM I had no idea about how much planning it took for museums to host events and create successful educational opportunities. So much goes into putting on a program and the small details really make a difference.

For the opening of Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini, we transformed the lobby space into a cocktail area. We set up a buffet and bar as well as seating areas. Each of these areas was then decorated to fit with the magic theme. We built houses of cards that adorned the tables and crated flower arrangements with magic wands that we placed throughout the space. To add to the ambiance of the space we hung the concept art for the exhibit on some of the walls. To give the space some more visual intrigue we created a mobile with playing cards and suspended it above the buffet area. These small details really made the night special.

For the Magic of Jonestown Festival we worked to create interactive magic themed crafts that children could create at the JMM table. After some experimenting we figured out how to make magic wands with smoothie straws, construction paper, and electrical tape and how to make magicians hats out of paper. The kids who came to the table really seemed to enjoy the crafts and it was something special for them to take home.

Before starting this summer, I thought programming was just speakers and book signing but it is so much more than that. It is all about creating experiences that connect people with the museum and offer them something different. I have been working on programming for Stitching History from the Holocaust which will open in the spring and it is a lot more challenging than I expected. The process of finding the best fit for our events is challenging but completely worth it. After seeing how popular the Houdini programs have been I cannot wait to finalize the program ideas for the spring and I can only hope they will be as popular.

The education department here at the JMM works very hard to connect to schools, camps, and other groups. We are not only working to education children but also their teachers. We host the Summer Teachers Institute which focuses on Holocaust education. This year we are focusing our attention on primary sources in the classroom. Teachers learn valuable skills which they can take back to their classes which creates a higher standard of Holocaust education. We are in the preparation stage for this event currently. We are creating schedules and emailing confirmations to those who have signed up.

Closer to the event we will have a lot of other preparation to do such as folders and gathering materials to share with the teachers. The Summer Teachers Institute was one of the main reasons I wanted to work at the JMM. Holocaust education is extremely important but is often ignored or glossed over in the school system. By providing teachers with resources and lesson plan ideas we can makes sure this important topic is discussed in classrooms.

The education department also hosts school and camp groups. We have educational activities to do with the kids. The first school group that came in was here to learn about the Holocaust and to hear from a survivor. We did an activity using pictures from our collection and asked the kids to explain what they thought was happening in the picture. The kids loved interacting with the primary sources and were able to be creative when coming up with their answers.

For Houdini we created the vanishing elephant game. Kids are put into group and each child is given a question (which are based on the Houdini exhibit). The kids then come back together and the answers reveal a code. They then have to break the code and reveal a secret message.

Our first camp group did an excellent job but it was clear that if we had younger kids this was not going to work. So we got to work on creating a version of the game for younger children. We changed some of the questions and eliminated the code breaker books. This new version allows for us to host a larger range of age groups. Seeing kids go through the exhibits and ask questions is what makes it all worthwhile. Knowing that we are providing a memorable and educational experience to these groups of kids is extremely rewarding.

I never thought that crafting, game design, and program creation would be part of my summer at the JMM but I am grateful that it is. Through this internship I am getting to see everything that goes into the program and education departments. It may be challenging some days but it is necessary. We are providing unique experiences for all patrons, the youngest to the oldest, and that is what a museum is all about. We are connecting to people on a deeper level through our programs and educational opportunities. These connections create lasting impressions and memories that will last a lifetime.

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Zen and the Art of Educational Programming

Posted on June 27th, 2018 by

Blog post by JMM intern Marisa Shultz. To read more posts from JMM interns, past and present, click here.

The Vanishing Elephant

As I have been working with our staff on the “Vanishing Elephant” educational program, I have been contemplating the steps that it takes to build a successful educational program. I am convinced that even though it may seem chaotic at times, there is an underlying process. While some may call them by different names, here are the basic steps:

1. Conceptualizing

2. Drafting

3. Visualizing

4. Revising

5. Implementing

6. Revising

7. Modifying

Conceptualizing and Drafting

Conceptualizing is the seed of an educational program; it is the idea that is inspired by its subject. This is the broadest and haziest stage, but it is always exciting because the possibilities are, literally, endless. The program, however, really begins to form in the drafting stage, which takes the inspiration and begins grounding it in reality; this is the stage where we have a general outline of activities and begin prototyping the items and props.

I arrived about halfway through the drafting stage for the “Vanishing Elephant” program. By the time I began work on it, the outline had been decided:

Visitors will be divided into five groups and each visitor will get a magnetized card; the card will have a question on one side, and a playing card face on the other. The visitors will get some time to find their answer in the exhibit and then check their answers together as a group. Then based upon a particular arrangement of their cards, the teams will have to crack the message hidden in the card faces.

Additionally, fabrication on the program had already begun. The questions were already developed, and the magnetized board and cards were already out for production. During this stage, I helped prototype the code books and began the fabrication process on those.

These are some of the magnetized playing cards for the “Vanishing Elephant” program! Take a moment and see if you can answer the questions! (The answers are #25: Al Jolson and #21: 16 years old).


One of the things that challenged me during my student teaching semester was classroom management (the layout of the room, what materials to have prepared, when to hand out said materials, timing activities, etc.). I overcame this by visualizing the lesson step by step from the perspectives of my students and myself. During this visualization, I focused on the practical aspects of the lesson, rather than the content, and made sure to prepare myself accordingly. The same technique can be applied to the creation of education programs.

After independently visualizing the “Vanishing Elephant” program and meeting about our concerns, the education department decided to make some changes…


Someone much smarter than me once said that all writing is revision… the same could be said of lesson planning and educational programs! Once the program has been visualized, oftentimes changes need to be made. The beauty of this step is that it is proactive; these changes happen before the program reaches an audience. For the “Vanishing Elephant” we created two new worksheets, got an easel for the magnetic board, made bags for easier organization, and added time for the visitors to first explore the exhibit and “get their ya-yas out!”

The program at this point definitely looks different than it did in the drafting stage, but that is a good thing!

We developed these two worksheets during the revising stage to help maintain visitor engagement with the program!


The next step is to introduce the program to a group of willing test subjects. It is critical in this stage to be both fully aware and completely honest with yourself regarding what is going well and what is, frankly, not. It is because of this personal honesty that can lead us once again to the revising stage, to change and improve the program.

For “Vanishing Elephant,” based upon feedback from our first testing group (thank you again to our wonderful docents and volunteers), we decided to not go over all 25 questions as a group, but rather choose 10 of the most important ones.

But Marisa – you mentioned zen in your blog title! Was that just a clever reference to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or are you actually going to talk about the concept of zen?

It’s both! Zen actually does have something to do with educational programs, and it comes in the form of modifying! Sometimes, no matter how carefully planned, things do not go as anticipated. Sometimes there are more students than anticipated; sometimes visitors arrive late. Sometimes an item goes missing, a space can’t be used, or the visitors need a specific accommodation. No matter the reason, education programming requires us to be flexible, to roll with the punches, and to allow our instincts to lead us.

It just goes to show that in planning for educational programs, our work is never truly done!

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