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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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So Much More Than a Number

Posted on July 12th, 2019 by

I asked the newest member of our team to write this month’s edition of Performance Counts. In her post, Visitor Services Coordinator Talia Makowsky, not only shares our phenomenal FY19 visitor numbers, but illustrates one of the reasons for our success- the incredibly dedicated and thoughtful staff we have assembled. ~Marvin. To read past editions of Performance Counts, click here. To read more posts from Talia, click here.


For some people, summer means a break a from school, or a chance to hit the beach, or chowing down at a cookout. For me, this summer has been full of learning all about the Jewish Museum, and the numbers that keep us operational and successful.

At first glance, the statistics part of my role, as Visitor Services Coordinator, doesn’t seem so exciting. I have to keep track of how many people visit each day, how many go on tours, how many come in a group and so on. It’s a part of my job that may not seem all that appealing, but in my six months at JMM, I have come to appreciate the significance of every check mark I’ve recorded.

Each number is a person who chose to spend their time and their money engaging in our stories. One number is someone learning about the history of Jonestown, where they may have lived all these years but never knew about the immigrant community. Another number is someone stepping into a synagogue for the first time. Many of the numbers are school children, engaging with their learning in a new way.

These numbers are more than just how many people walked through our doors. They’re the experiences people had at our Museum. They’re people who’ve come for the first time, or are coming back again and again, because they feel that our stories are worth supporting, sharing, and learning. Please join me in celebrating these numbers and appreciating every person who chose us as their storyteller this year.

We had plenty of unique stories to tell this year, including the stories from our Jewish Refugees and Shanghai exhibit.

If you’re not familiar with how we keep track of our statistics, here’s a quick overview.  These numbers come from our past fiscal year, July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2019. This is Fiscal Year 2019, or FY19. And it was one of the biggest ones we’ve had at our Museum.This last year we had over 15,000 people visit the Museum! This number represents the total onsite visitors, or the total amount of people who stepped foot onto our campus. This number exceeds our previous fiscal year, which was over 10,800 people. In fact, this number beats out our records going back to at least  FY11, the earliest year when we have a comparable method of counting.  We believe this may be the biggest year on record for the Jewish Museum’s onsite visitors, which includes general attendance, school groups, adult groups, public programs, rentals, and teacher trainings/workshops.

One of the reasons why we had such a magical year was because of our Houdini exhibit, which was open from June 2018 through January 2019. However, the momentum from Houdini didn’t leave when the exhibit did, to travel around. Our other exhibits this year, Jewish Refugees in Shanghai, My Family Story, and Fashion Statement and Stitching History from the Holocaust continued to attract visitors, with 5,890 people marked for general admission.

We loved showing off our style with our Fashion Statement exhibit, on view until September 15th!

We had 3,553 students and educators join us for those exhibits, as well as for our general education programming. This included visits to the Houdini exhibit, our Intro to Judaism program, and much more. With our Jewish Refugees in Shanghai exhibit, we were able to reach out to a whole new audience of learners, some of whom were studying Chinese, and could read both the English and Chinese sides of the exhibit panels!

Our educators love working with students to teach them about Jewish history in Maryland and beyond. Most of time, we end up learning from the students too!

The kids weren’t the only ones who had some fun learning in our Museum. We had 1,034 people visit in adult groups as well this year. These groups had a chance to find a connection not only with the Museum, but with their friends as well. Our adult groups experienced magic, laughter, and learning in our exhibits and tours, and we look forward to welcoming them back in the new fiscal year.Along with those exhibits, we had exciting programs to entice and educate our visitors. With over 50 public programs, we had a wide range of topics and activities to entice the 3,776 people who attended them! With programs ranging from book talks to seances, bake-offs to Sephardic musical performances, we had plenty of things to do last year. Of course, the fun doesn’t stop just because it’s hot out! We already have programs planned through November, so make sure to keep an eye on our Events page!

We had a grand and spooky time last Halloween, with our Houdini Séance. We hope to continue having fun with you all this year! – Photo courtesy of Will Kirk.

With so many things to do and exhibits to see at the Museum, it’s no surprise that we’re attracting people from all over. While 17% of our visitors’ hail from nearby Baltimore City and Baltimore county, this year we had 116 people visit us from other countries. These countries included Singapore, New Zealand, Poland, the UK, France, and Canada, showing us that our Museum is a destination worth traveling for in any direction!These amazing numbers this year represent more than just the success of our marketing, program planning, and outreach. These numbers are the thousands of people who have chosen to visit our Museum to listen to the stories we collect and share with our audience. Each number is a person thinking more deeply about history, whether their own Jewish history or a new culture they’ve never encountered before. Each number is someone opening their mind and their heart to our community, here in Jonestown, and we’re honored by every single one.

Thank you to everyone who visited this past fiscal year, to make FY19 a success. Please continue attending our programs, checking out our exhibits, and supporting us as members, so that we can keep sharing these incredible stories.

~Talia


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JMM Insights: Learning By Doing

Posted on April 21st, 2017 by

Want to listen to a pumping heart? Save the day at Ft. McHenry by removing ammunition from a stockade? Turn a pickle into a light bulb?

If you’ve visited JMM in the last few years, you might have done all of the above.  The opportunities to “learn by doing” continue this summer with our next exhibit, Just Married!: Wedding Stories from Jewish Maryland now under development.

As you might expect, this exhibit features wedding gowns, accessories, invitations, and even ketubahs that are more than 150 years old.  But in making this experience accessible to people of all ages and all learning styles it will also contain “interactive” experiences.  Despite the 21st century jargon in the name, interactives in museums date back more than a century.

In 1911, Jewish businessman and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald took his 8 year-old son William to the Deutsches Museum in Munich.  There he saw something new in the museum world – instead of halls exclusively devoted to objects in cases, some of the exhibits had cranks and levers and pulleys.  These devices invited visitors not just to observe the scientific world but to understand it through participation. Rosenwald was so impressed with the impact of this new style of museum experience that he became determined to bring it back to America, to his hometown of Chicago – and so began the story of the Museum of Science and Industry, the nation’s largest science museum.

Over the course of the 20th century, interactives migrated from science museums to children’s museums and by the 1980s to natural history and history museums as well.  These exhibit units are sometimes characterized as “activities for kids,” but it is the experience of museum professionals that interactives receive as much of a workout from adults as children, if only vicariously (i.e. “Johnny, try pulling the crank first and then flipping the lever”).

In approaching the interactives for Just Married!: Wedding Stories from Jewish Maryland, we began, as always, with educational objectives…how do we transform the topic into a vehicle for inspiring in-depth exploration and critical reasoning?  What concepts and activities would fit our exhibit themes, while attracting visitors both young and old?  We came up with a mix of puzzles, tactile experiences, and audio rewards to engage the brain as well as the senses.

An important part of interactive planning is beta testing. Over the winter, we tested two of our activities, one on the public and one on the JMM staff.

Our seating chart puzzle, designed by our in-house game maven, involves a set of adorable but in-law challenged meeples [wondering what meeples are? (and no, the singular of “meeples” is not “merson”)].  Our meeple families: the color-coded Pinkerts and Greensteins, Silvermans and Goldbergs needs to be strategically seated to achieve a set of goals for the bride and groom.  In this way we hoped to transform a common problem into a 3-D logic puzzle – both entertaining and thought provoking.

We set a simple prototype in the JMM lobby and invited visitors to give it a try.  This gave us insight into what visitors found confusing – such as the fact that unlabeled meeples are indistinguishable (so who could say if cousin Steve was sitting where he should be?) We experimented with affixing tiny labels to the meeples, simplifying the game’s rules and clarifying how to reset the game board for the next player.  All of these small adjustments will contribute to successful interactive – a tool that promotes learning (and fun).

Joanna’s match-the-photo puzzle was tested out on the staff in a slightly less formal manner (but with scorekeeping, which always adds to the fun). In this activity, players are asked to match the wedding and anniversary photos of several Maryland couples from various eras.  Our collections include some great images, thanks to generations of Marylanders celebrating the milestone anniversaries of parents and grandparents.  Eleven of our staff and volunteers gave the game a try; there were mixed results, score-wise (and yes, one person did successfully match all eight couples), but everyone found themselves engrossed in the challenge. (Curator Karen takes a crack at matching photos.)

These trial games were invaluable.  In the case of the photos, Joanna learned that the original version – a scattering of sixteen photos from eight couples, with no indication as to which images were wedding and which were anniversary – was much too difficult for anyone who hadn’t been staring at the pictures for three days like she had.  A few tweaks to the set-up improved things considerably. Our goal is to make interactives challenging – but not frustrating, often a difficult “sweet spot” to find.Interactives are just one component in turning a space into an experience.  A strong interactive complements, but does not replace, memorable images or artifacts – but the right tools can transport the visitor from “watcher” to “doer” and give them a sense of personal ownership of an exhibit. (Marketing and Development Manager Rachel had a tough time as the inaugural tester.)

Blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert (with assistance from Collections Manager Joanna Church). To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.

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