Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Category: Museum Topics (page 1 of 15)

Rethinking Relevance

Be relevant. Is there a phrase we’ve recently heard more often than this one in the museum field? It’s tossed around a lot. So much so, in fact, that I’m getting kind of tired of it. But these past few months I’ve had multiple conversations and experiences that have led me to reflect on relevance even more, and I’ve realized that maybe the reason it’s the subjects of so many conferences, books, and blog posts is because:

  1. It’s super important, especially for public institutions such as museums
  2. It can take a LOT of effort and skill to implement well
  3. It’s more complex than it seems at first

So, if you can bear yet another voice on this subject, let me share a few words about my recent reflections. And in light of it’s complexity, let me start with the simple definition, put forth by Merriam-Webster, that relevance is something with a “practical and especially social applicability.”

That’s a pretty broad definition, but it speaks to our conversations around relevance that almost all speak to the ‘applicability’ part. Whenever I hear conversations about relevance, they seem to focus on specific techniques but only briefly, if at all, mention why these practices matter. While techniques are critical, I think we’re selling ourselves, and our communities, short if we gloss over our reasons for implementing them. Motivation and technique always go hand in hand when implementing and practicing values.

Three motivations that I see are a:

  • Drive for numbers: Some museums see relevance as a tool to increase the number of visitors at the museum. The American Alliance of Museums’ (AAM) blog has a section titled “Building Cultural Audiences” devoted to conversations about expanding visitors through better understanding of their preferences and organizational adjustments.
  • Drive to serve: Other museums put the emphasis on their role as an institution in service to their community, as outlined in ICOM’s 2007 definition of a museum.
  • Drive to collaborate: Nina Simon discusses in her book The Art of Relevance the concept of an assets-based focus in which museums work with their community’s assets and collaborate rather than serve.

While a museum can be motivated by each of these, they will at times be faced with a choice that does not accommodate all – and then which will they choose?

Motivation aside, there are many different techniques to increasing relevance. But they seem to fall into two categories:

  • Situational relevant techniques include programs that capitalize on time, anniversaries, or trends – high interest areas that increase visitors. Think blockbuster exhibits, exhibits and programs commemorating an event, or trends in technology. However, each such program is temporary and so begs the questions: do the additional visitors stay engaged with the institution for a long duration? If not, does this count as relevance?
  • The flip side of situational relevance is engagement integrated into the institution. Museums that follow this method demonstrate a long-term commitment to relevance in their community through outside partnerships and the institutional culture. It often involves strong mission-based programming, listening to the community, long-term commitments, and focusing on assets.

While reflecting on these different motivations and techniques, I at first thought that integrated techniques motivated by a desire to serve or collaborate were better. But then I thought about the diversity of museums and began questioning whether relevance does, or should, look the same at all of them. Is there one standard that all museums need to reach in order to be considered ‘relevant?’

Characteristics such as size and location of a museum and their audience do not need to change the motivation, but they sure have an impact on the techniques. Does one technique denote more or less relevance than another? And therefore, are some museums positioned better to be relevant than others?

Many large institutions fall into the situational category with large exhibits and programs, while smaller institutions may find it harder to accommodate trends but easier to integrate a new value into their entire staff. To compensate for such differences, large museums could create advisory teams to work more closely with specific communities and small museums could find smaller/cheaper ways to integrate situational techniques.

It’s easy to see a few programs a museum is doing and walk away critiquing their level of relevance. But of course there are many actions and conversations we don’t see if we don’t work there. And we also need to recognize that most museums are on a path towards increased relevance and these journeys may look different for different museums. What would it look like for our field to encourage one another along this process, while holding each other accountable, rather than judge from afar?

Living in the Past: The Heritage House Program at Strawbery Banke Museum

This week’s contribution comes from Emma Cook, who is in her second year in the Masters of Museum Studies/History program, and  is the Collections Department Intern at Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, NH. 

In a transitional world, museums face the pressures to stay relevant to society. Change has redefined the public’s idea of museum experiences and definitions of patriotism. Public demand has grown for museums to reinvent themselves in ways that will increase public engagement and relevance, while maintaining sustainability in historic preservation and financial affairs. Strawbery Banke has many traditions and has relied on many traditional practices, but the museum understands its need to adapt and remain flexible in an ever-changing society. What separates Strawbery Banke from other outdoor museums is its preservation of one of the oldest neighborhoods in urban America, spanning a lifetime of nearly four centuries that has been brought back to life by the museum and the city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The Heritage House Program creates the opportunity for community members to live and work within a historic American neighborhood, while providing financial sustainability in the preservation of its historic houses.

Strawbery Banke consists of 39 preserved historic buildings, with many on their original foundations. These historic houses interpret the past culture and lives of individuals who resided in Puddle Dock from the 1690s to the neighborhood’s decline in the 1950s. The Heritage House Program was designed to revitalize underutilized buildings on the Strawbery Banke Museum property for rental space and museum revenue. The program not only preserves the historic structures and restores them to a specific period in time; it provides residential and commercial space to the local community, and a substantial income for sustainable pursuits. The Heritage House Program contains 15 buildings that, when completed, will provide contemporary residential apartments and offices. So far there are seven completed apartments and six buildings containing 31 offices. The work is funded by individuals, corporations, grants, and in-kind contributions with a percentage of the annual rental income from each unit reserved for the preservation fund to ensure continued maintenance and funding for all historic houses on the museum campus.

Presently, the Penhallow House is in the workings of a complete restoration with Heritage House Program funding. This historic house is a site on the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail and the only “saltbox” house remaining at Strawbery Banke Museum. Further planning and communications are underway in developing the future role of this historic house at Strawbery Banke Museum.

Since its rescue from the 1950s city renewal projects, the Strawbery Banke Museum has not only found control of its own site and economy, but also shared authority with its community and city history. The vast changes in the museum’s look, function, and internal structure, over the years since its establishment in 1978, demonstrate an ever-changing dynamic of a reinventing museum. The ability to not only find funding through modifying excess space, but also including the community to utilize this space, is a unique strategy worth learning from, as the Heritage House Program exemplifies historic preservation with an outcome of community inclusion through rental space and revenue to support museum operations and exhibition space.

An Unanticipated Session at AAM 2017

The next few weeks we will be posting reflections from students who attended the American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting and Conference, held in St. Louis, Missouri, May 6-10. This first post comes from Max Metz, a current M.A. candidate in the Museum Education program at Tufts. 

Just blocks away from the Old Saint Louis Courthouse in downtown Saint Louis Missouri, where in 1846 Dred and Harriet Scott filed for their freedom from slavery, the American Alliance of Museums held its 2017 Annual Meeting and Museum Expo. This year’s theme was “Gateways for Understanding: Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion in Museum,” a theme that showed its importance and pertinence within the conference itself at an unanticipated session.

On Sunday, the LF Creative Group, an art and fabrication studio, set up their sales display of two manikins with the intention of showing their best work, create an emotional response, and to sell their products to museums and cultural institutions alike. They were unaware that their choice of an enslaved black man, chained to a post, chest bare, alongside a white slave trader, would create the kind of reaction that eventually overtook aspects of the conference. Early Monday, Michael Furlund, employe of LF Creative Group, was coming in to ready his display when he happened upon a black female on the cleaning staff almost in tears after seeing the two figures in his booth – a sign of what was to come. The AAM community took to twitter where the #AAM2017SlaveAuction hashtag was born and within 24 hours AAM president Laura Lott had weighed into the discussion and eventual the enslaved man manikin was covered in a black cloth.

Between late Tuesday and the close of the Annual Meeting and Museum Expo on Wednesday, conference goers and the CEO of LF Creative Group, Rodney Heiligmann, were able to address concerns and explain the company’s stance in front of a crowd of more than 100 conference-goers. This productive conversation did not happen naturally, but needed to be mediated and facilitated to keep it productive and civil. Participants on both sides were becoming too heated when Dina Bailey, CEO at Mountain Top Vision, stepped in to mediate the conversation. Under her calm and respectful guidance, the conversation was able to proceed and create a learning experience for all present.

 Looking at this controversial, impromptu conversation like a session, I had a few takeaways that were profound to me. Although I did have more than these four takeaways, I personally found these more accommodating – they created new areas of experience that I can weigh on in my future.

Social Media

The power of social media is both terrifying and liberating – awesome in the truest sense of the word. If I was not following the conference on Twitter and I did not try to engage in the digital space as well as the physical space of the conference, I would have missed this entire event. The terrifying power is that of the troll and the negativity that can erupt out of social media to create a volatile situation. The liberation comes from the ability to see diverse perspectives in an unregulated and open space that is accessible everywhere. While following #AAM2017SlaveAuction, one of the first hashtags I have ever followed (ever), I was amazed by the moderating behavior of some users and the incendiary behavior of others.  I do not think that users truly understand the power of their words, and the tone and emotion behind those words, when amplified by social media. If it was not for a few moderators that brought some calm to the hashtag, the conversation would have developed into a riotous, unproductive space. However, with their mediation online and their calm, information began to permeate, not just emotion.


Just like the digital space, the physical space did not have a productive conversation immediately. One or two outspoken opponents of the company began to control the dialogue and amp up the emotions in the room. The productive conversation that eventually took place in the exhibition hall was almost missed had  a skilled museum educator not stepped up to the plate and offered to mediate the conversation. As Heiligmann began to speak, museum professionals heckled him, while he tried not to react negatively.  The situation was developing into an unruly mob. I was on the “side” of the museum professionals asking for more answers. However the way in which the conversation was proceeding was unproductive until deliberate steps were made to create a conversation instead of a one-sided protest. Together we stated the problems, gathered information on both sides, understood the problem from various perspectives, and created a set of recommendations for all of us to take away from this unfortunate situation.

Confrontation vs Dialogue

Much of the unrest came from the booth attendant, a fabricator and artist with the company, who was unprepared for the situation. I had the opportunity to overhear him interact with museum professionals at the booth before the larger session with the CEO, and it was clear that the stances that both sides had were too deeply seated to have productive dialogue, it was only resulting in heated confrontation and deeper heals in the sand. He was not around for the CEO’s session, however I happened to run into him on the other side of the exhibit hall, outside of the context of the intense situation. We chatted and I was really able to understand his point of view and I made sure he was able to understand mine, and the many others who were opposing his view. When we were outside of the intense context created by the manikins and I was not attacking him, he did not attack back and we communicated. When overhearing interactions at the booth, there was just noise being directed back and forth at each party – there was no listening taking place. I was happy to be able to listen to him, disagree with him, and walk away understanding him in the end. We must diffuse before we can communicate.

An Industry “About” Learning Not “Of” Learning

Much of the argument that the employee used to combat the criticism of much of the conference-goers had to do with the division between museum expo exhibitors and museum conference attendees. Although both audiences were under the same umbrella of inclusion, diversity, equity, and access, not all were present for the same reason. Exhibitors are there to sell products and grow business, while attendees are there to learn and grow perspectives – neither of these aims is wrong, but they are not productive in the same space. I do believe that there needs to be a larger emphasis in the industry, encompassing vendors and museum-based professionals, about education and the greater mission of our institutions. There needs to be a bigger push for exhibitors to attend sessions and interact with other attendees in a less transactional space. Furthermore, non-exhibitors should expose and educate themselves to the “other side” of the industry that makes exhibitions, publications, interactives, multimedia, etc. happen so that we can promote learning inside our four walls. A greater mixing of the two groups with the goal of education and understand could help prevent a situation like this from happening in the future.

Follow the links below below to view images of the the Old St. Louis Courthouse, the LF Creative Group booths, and the “Slave Auction”  Installment at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum respectively.


About the Author: Max Metz is a second year graduate student in the Museum Education program at Tufts University. He is the Manager and Anne Larner Educator at the Durant-Kenrick House and Grounds of Historic Newton. As a nontraditional educator, Max flows freely between various atypical teaching and learning environments from museums to parks, deep in the forest or deep in the neighborhoods, and contemporary art settings to historic houses. He consideres himself a facilitator of educational experiences who uses interpretation to reveal the personal context and connections behind the resources at hand.


“New Ways to Talk About Nature” at the AAM Annual Conference

The next few weeks we will be posting reflections from students who attended the American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting and Conference, held in St. Louis, Missouri, May 6-10. This first post comes from Erica Colwell, a current M.A. candidate in the Museum Education program. To see more of Erica’s work on the blog, click here

At a session titled “New Ways to talk About Nature” at this year’s American Alliance of Museums Annual Conference in St. Louis, educators from several natural history museums presented projects and exhibitions their respective museums had recently undertaken to reach new audiences, build lasting community partnerships, and to more successfully interpret not only the specimens within their museums, but also the natural world outside their museums. The talks of two of the most compelling speakers, Karen Wise and Beth Redmond-Jones, are summarized below.

Karen Wise, former Vice President of Education and Exhibits at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, explained that for too long, natural history museums have remained “dead zoos”— static, stodgy places with bones and specimens that are cut off from nature, despite purporting to educate visitors about the living world around them. Wise stated that many children from urban Los Angeles may not have many opportunities to explore nature, or may not realize what around them constitutes nature. In an effort to better support this audience, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County underwent a major renovation several years ago in order to update its exhibits, programs, and to become an indoor/outdoor museum. The outdoor part of the museum now hosts a habitat garden with plants and animals native to Southern California, and the researchers and scientists that work at the museum often conduct their research at outdoor sites on the museum’s grounds where visitors can see the scientists at work, and perhaps even take part in an active research project. “Citizen Science,” a phrase used to describe getting community members involved with scientific research, is an important tool according to Wise. She wants the Museums’ visitors to feel that they are scientists themselves, and that they know enough to be able to contribute to the important work that goes on at the museum. The Museum’s website has a page dedicated to citizen science opportunities, and states that “In order to understand our city better, the Museum has begun a long-term biodiversity study of urban habitats and surrounding natural areas. Our goal is to not only increase our knowledge of local wildlife, but also to involve our local community in this study. From lizards to ladybugs, we need your help in each of our community science projects — the Museum can’t do it alone! “

Beth Redmond-Jones, the Senior Director of Public Programs at the San Diego Natural History Museum, spoke about an exhibition her museum’s library opened in order to attract visitors who don’t typically consider themselves “science people.” The San Diego Natural History Museum has an exceptional library full of nature-related rare books, manuscripts, maps, and more. Called Extraordinary Ideas, the exhibition featured, according to the Museum’s website, “Rare books, art, photographs, and historical documents from the Research Library’s 56,000-volume collection that pay homage to the past, present, and future of citizen science” including treasures like “An extremely rare copy of the gigantic Double Elephant Folio of John James Audubon’s Birds of America. The folio, one of only a few copies in existence, depicts life-size renditions of a wide variety of North America’s birds.” This exhibition’s goal was to share some of the library’s most interesting and scientifically valuable collection items with the public, and in doing so, attract visitors that are interested in books, illustrations, art, and history instead of just biology. Redmond-Jones called this exhibition interdisciplinary, because though it still revolved around nature, the theme of the exhibition was closely linked to the humanities.

Museums and Rural Schools

Today’s post comes to you from Andrea Woodberry, current Tufts Museum Education M.A. candidate.

What happens when common hurdles to K-12 museum visits, such as budget and time constraints, are combined with the significant physical barrier of hundreds of miles? How can schools located in rural areas provide meaningful educational experiences at museums for their students when facing this issue of physical distance?

The two ways for any school to access museum resources are through local museums or by traveling to such resources outside the area, both of which have their own set of problems for rural schools. Many rural areas do not have local museum resources due to a lack of trained staff, distrust of outsiders, and poverty-stricken environments. While some areas, such as that of the Ohio Valley Museum of Discovery, may be able to work around these barriers and support a large museum, they are the exceptions. However, for over 100 years, educators such as Edmund Conaway have argued that local items can provide the benefits of object-based learning outside of professional museums. While this may not seem to be of equal value as the standard large museum in a more urban setting, museums and rural educators should not underestimate the potential of local resources, whether in a formal museum or not.

Nevertheless, access to larger professional organizations does have great value for students who can travel outside their region. Unfortunately, budget cuts and standardized testing require administrators to make decisions that often leave field trips low on priority lists. Even with adequate funds, time can be an issue for many rural schools. Being hours away from museum resources makes it difficult to have an impactful experience within constraints of the length of school days, the stamina of younger children on long bus rides, and the availability of bus drivers.

So, what methods have museums tried to help rural schools overcome these hurdles? Common approaches include traveling trunks, distance learning through technology, and traveling exhibitions. Traveling trunks, such as those at the Kansas Historical Society, provide students with the value of object-based learning while costing the school less time and money. Technology may not include this hands-on interaction with objects; however, Skype sessions and pre-recorded lessons do provide interaction with museum staff members. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has been experimenting with using technology to connect with more classrooms in new ways since the mid-1990s and currently uses videoconferencing technology for two-way communication and quality graphics. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) and the Smithsonian Institution have tried to bring object-based learning and museum staff to rural areas through traveling exhibitions hosted by local sites such as libraries. However, while these did engage students to some extent, the host site often needed more training to effectively interpret the materials. While each of these examples demonstrates some museums’ awareness of the needs and challenges of rural schools, each method has room for improvement. How can museums continue to deepen their work with rural students?

First and foremost, deeper collaboration between museum staff and rural educators would provide greater trust, more effective programming, and long-term relationships. For this reason, a museum that wants to work with rural students must carefully assess the long-term commitment they can provide, either on their own or in partnership with other museums. In addition to regular communication, training workshops could cover how to incorporate object-based learning techniques, including VTS, into the classroom, how to utilize local resources for projects such as nature explorations and oral history collections, or how to get the most out of available digital resources of the museum. Space for communication and partnership would lead to more innovative ideas and increased access to museum resources.

Intentional and relevant use of technology is another way for museums to consistently innovate ways to deepen their engagement with rural school audiences. One possibility would be to have the museum educator on a split screen with chosen objects in front of the class. On personal tablets, students would have an image of the same object and could make digital markings on the object that would then be shown on the large screen. This would enable the class to go through a VTS process similar to what would happen if they were physically at the museum. A second option would be for the museum, ideally an outdoor sculpture garden or historic site, to use a drone to take images and videos of their site. Then, the aerial footage would be turned into an interactive map that would be the basis for students’ exploration of the site with a museum educator. This would add  the value of seeing the physical site as well as the individual objects.

These are just a couple of examples. Whether through workshops to equip and connect teachers and local resources, traveling trunks, or innovative technology-based programs, the potential for engaging and beneficial partnerships is only expanding. With deeper collaboration across museums and between museum staff and leaders in rural areas the possibilities are endless. What are your thoughts? How best can museums engage rural audiences?

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