Measuring Memories, Nurturing Upstanders

Posted on September 14th, 2018 by

This month’s edition of Performance Counts comes from Deputy Director Tracie Guy-Decker. To read past editions of Performance Counts, click here. To read more posts by Tracie, click here.

From the Collections: Cloth tape measure used at Pell’s Tailoring Shop, Baltimore, MD. JMM 1995.83.12

Back in December of 2017, this newsletter talked about how we measure the Museum. In that edition of Performance Counts, I let you know that we had begun a memorability study of the Museum. To refresh your memory, one of the measures of quality of a museum is its memorability.

To help explain what we mean by memorability, I will reiterate an anecdote that Marvin often tells. Museum guru John Falk was once challenged at a lecture by a teacher who argued field trips were too expensive and simply didn’t provide enough return on investment. John invited this educator to remember a museum field trip that he had taken as a child. The teacher provided a detailed description of a grade school trip to the Museum of Science and Industry (one of Marvin’s alma maters), and his journey into the Coal Mine exhibit there. John then asked what the man had learned in school the day after the field trip, or the next week? or that month? As you might imagine, the story of classroom learning was not nearly as forthcoming.

Our ongoing efforts to *measure* our memorability involve us collecting visitor information while they’re here and then calling them three months after their visit. Our post-visit phone call is a combination survey and conversation. Our colleagues at the Associated have been making these calls on our behalf. The first wave of calls happened in December of 2017 to visitors who had been onsite in September.

For this first wave, forty-one visitors shared their info for future follow up. Of those, fifteen were reached through thirteen telephone interviews. The Key findings indicate:

14 out of 15 visitors are extremely satisfied with their overall museum experience.

Comments to explain the high ratings include the following:
• Nice tour guide
• Interesting experience
• Met people there and we showed them around

And 14 out of 15 respondents are very likely to recommend.

Comments include:
• “I already recommended; I loved the exhibit”
• “History brought back a lot of memories”
• “It’s your culture, you want to learn more”

Visitors remember many details, and like the connections to history and their lives.

Perhaps even more important than the memorability of the Museum, is its capacity to inspire action. I’ve written before about how the Museum experience has the power to make visitors into better human beings—to make them upstanders instead of bystanders.

In the three months between their visit and their telephone interviews, our visitors remember engaging in follow up activities from conversation to creation, and of course, one of our favorites, planning a repeat visit!

I know that most visitors to JMM are not becoming community activists as a result of their time with us. It’s also clear from the study we’re undertaking that the after-effects of a positive museum experience spur new thinking, new conversations, new learning, and sometimes even the creation of all new things like art, literature, and curricula. And if one in a hundred or even one in a thousand of our visitors converts their experience here into new ways to improve their corner of the world, I’d say we’re doing something right.

We’re currently collecting visitor information, and intend to do wave 2 of interviews about three months from now. I look forward to sharing the results with you as they come in.

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Operation Finale and the role of art in teaching history

Posted on August 27th, 2018 by

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

Back in July of this year, Trillion Attwood, the JMM Program Manager, was approached by a promotional company arranging for pre-release screenings of the new movie Operation Finale. Their goal was to create buzz around the Ben KingsleyOscar Isaac film that dramatizes the Israelis’ 1961 capture of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. The promotional company wanted to know if we would be willing to host a screening if they would pay to rent the theater space at a cinema near our location.

Marvin and I jumped at the opportunity (not literally. There isn’t usually a great deal of literal jumping in the JMM offices).

We knew we wanted to do more than just a film screening, so we immediately got in touch with our colleagues at the United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum (USHMM) in Washington. They were planning their own DC-area screening with this same promotional company, but they were still excited to partner with us on our Baltimore screening. We also reached out to our colleagues and partners at Baltimore Jewish Council for their partnership. Together, the partners decided to do a talk-back after the film, with a facilitated conversation between an historian from USHMM and our audience. We decided I would be the facilitator.

In the days and weeks after the decision to proceed, it became clear that Marvin and I were not the only people figuratively jumping at the chance to see this film. We did very little promotion for the event (we didn’t have much time), and still saw tickets sell out in about 48 hours. Our staff fielded phone calls and emails of folks desperately hoping to score a seat. (Luckily for them, the movie is being released in theaters this Wednesday, August 29.)

That evening, I was excited and a bit apprehensive as I found my seat in theater 5 at the Landmark Theatres Harbor East. While I have considerable experience facilitating discussions, I usually have read or seen the topic of discussion before facilitating conversation. In this case, I watched for the first time with the other 200 people in the theater. I expected it would be an emotional experience. I didn’t anticipate how suspenseful the film would be.

I admit that I knew very little of the details of the capture of Eichmann in Argentina before watching the film. The filmmakers do an admirable job of building and holding suspense for the viewer. I felt my heart race several times as I watched. I was also struck by the nuance with which the movie depicted not only the Israeli operatives who carried out the mission in Argentina, but Eichmann himself. In the conversations after the film, some of my fellow audience-goers worried that the film made Eichmann too sympathetic. I did not find him particularly sympathetic—the film does not shy away from his monstrosities—in fact, in one memory, we see over and over, Eichmann oversees the field execution of thousands. His lack of compassion and disregard for what he oversees is depicted through the banality of his concern over the cleanliness of his jacket. I was, however, impressed with the three dimensions that the filmmakers and Ben Kingsley lent to the character. As one of our audience members put it in their survey response, “Ben Kingsley’s performance as Eichmann” showed “how someone so boring and ordinary can become so evil.”

In our talkback after the film, Dr. Peter Black, an independent scholar and historian formerly with the USHMM helped us understand what is true and what is fictionalized in the film. It turns out that while many of the dramatic details that had my heart racing are fictionalized, the core of the story is an accurate depiction of the facts as Peter Malkin (played by Oscar Isaac) recollected them in his published accounts. Taking the time to distinguish fact from fiction was appreciated by our audience, who, in surveys noted “loved that you clarified fiction vs. fact. Love that there was audience participation,” and from another, “the follow-up—fact from fiction—was the highlight!”

My big question to the audience that night was “what role does art like this have in the teaching of history?”  There was some disagreement. One gentleman lamented that movies like this disseminate misinformation. He suggested that most of us in the audience already knew the story, and perhaps the filmmakers should have left well enough alone. I countered with a question. What about for my daughter, who is six years old? She is unlikely to know any survivors into her adulthood. Does art have a role in keeping the story alive for future generations like her? If the answer is yes, do the art-makers have license to make the audience heart race even if the adrenalin-filled chase to the airport is a little less-than accurate?

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Inescapable: The details make the story more real

Posted on June 22nd, 2018 by

This month’s edition of JMM Insights is brought to you by JMM Deputy Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.

Tonight, our latest original exhibit Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini opens at a members-only preview (by the way, if you’re reading this and you don’t yet have a ticket, I am sorry to tell you that we are completely sold out. Please come on Sunday to see the exhibit and take in the Magic of Jonestown outdoor festival).

Since our JMM Insights newsletter is supposed to give you, the JMM insider, an inside look, I thought I’d take a moment to talk about an underappreciated component of exhibits: props.

I have written before about the power of objects in museums. One of our interns recently tackled the question Do Museums Need Objects, and another intern wrote yesterday about objects in this exhibit. But what I want to talk about are the physical items in exhibits that are not, in fact, artifacts.

I admit that I am a little biased in focusing on this for Inescapable, since one of the more charismatic of the props in the show, the Edison cylindrical record player, belongs to my husband, David. But that’s only part of the reason I wanted to talk about props with you. Before I worked in a museum, I admit that I never once thought about props in museum exhibits. Maybe you’re in the same boat. But in my opinion, they can be the details that complete the story.

My husband’s Edison player gives a visual context to the recording of Houdini’s voice. It helps conjure the experience for the visitor. Curators and exhibit designers use props to help create an environment in which you, the visitor, can encounter the artifacts.

In Voices of Lombard Street, we use a lot of props to create a fully immersive environment. In most instances, museum props are used to make your museum experience a more immersive one, and immersion helps make your visit there memorable (I discussed the importance of memorability when I wrote about how we measure the museum).

In addition to David’s Edison player, there are several props in the Behind the Curtain section of Inescapbale.

There are props integrated into interactive elements, and there are reproductions of photos and posters throughout the exhibit. But don’t worry, Dear Reader, we are not trying to fool you! Our labels will tell you everything you need to know about an object or image, including the nature of what you’re looking at (original or reproduction), where the artifact, image or prop came from, and who owns the intellectual property (if anyone). (Note that if there is no label on an object in a JMM exhibit, you can be pretty sure it’s a prop.)

And so, JMM Insider, you now have a choice as you encounter exhibits, whether here or at other museums. You can use your new insights to take a peek behind the scenes, noting where we Museum Professionals have introduced props to enhance your experience, or you can ignore the details on the labels and allow yourself to be fully immersed. Either way, at least when it comes to this exhibit, I trust you’ll enjoy the effect of all our effort.



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