Museum Studies at Tufts University

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Weekly Jobs Roundup

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The Role of Objects in Today’s Historic House Museum

The role of objects in the 21st-century museum seems to be a hot topic right about now, especially with many museums incorporating digital collections, 3-D models, and reconstructions into their understanding of what it means to interact with a museum object. When we think about digital collections and 3-D models, however, historic house museums might not be the first thing that pops into our head. Yet, as a student currently taking a course called Revitalizing Historic House Museums (HHMs), my mind has been infiltrated with thoughts about how to make the visitor experience worthwhile in a genre of museums with declining visitor numbers. In my experience, HHMs seem to be one of least likely kinds of museums to create a digital collection of their objects. One reason for this could be because HHMs sometimes serve as dumping grounds for community members to donate their personal belongings that they feel are important enough to be preserved, and thus many sites have a plethora of unrelated objects that they may not even know they have. Another reason could be that many HHMs contain mostly objects that are not original to the house. And a very pressing and apparent issue is that HHMs typically have small operating budgets, low numbers of paid staff (and oftentimes are run solely by volunteers), and are dealing with houses that are sometimes hundreds of years old that require careful and costly maintenance. So how can HHMs compete with other bigger, flashier, more digitally-oriented museums when they are focused on keeping their doors open and the house still standing?

While it can be hard to see past some of the unrelenting issues HHMs as a genre are facing, digitizing collections and creating reconstructions could make them a more desirable place to visit. Indeed, in our modern world where visitors are asking (begging) more and more for an interactive experience rather than a lecture from a stodgy tour guide, HHMs might need digital collections and 3-D models more than any other kind of museum. Think about this: many HHMs have a strict “DO NOT TOUCH” policy when it comes to the collections. Yet how does this recreate a realistic home-life experience for the visitor? If a goal of HHMs is to allow visitors to experience what it was really like to live in the house, how does a hands-off policy achieve this? What person lives in a house and touches nothing (and does anyone really live in a house with Plexiglas over the bookshelves and velvet ropes in front of the bed)? Whose home is always perfectly set up to look as if no one has lived in it the way many HHMs are? This is where digital collections, 3-D models, and reconstructions can come in. While it would be unrealistic to recreate every object in the house, even having a few objects that visitors can touch, sit on, or interact with would greatly add to the visitor experience. An online digital collection where visitors can zoom in on and manipulate the objects in the house could also be an option and can be an effective stand in for those people who will, for whatever reason, never be able to visit a particular site. Digital collections accessed prior to a visit have also been known to increase visitor interest in a museum, which could improve declining visitor numbers at HHMs who do have an online collection. However, these endeavors require time, money, and resources which, unfortunately, many HHMs do not have.

Thus, I have more questions than answers about this topic when it relates specifically to HHMs (*sigh*). Is it necessary to create an online collection of objects that are not even original to the house or have anything to do with the house or site? If the objects are not original to the house, are they there to simply create the ‘experience’ of being in the house and how could this experience be recreated with a digital collection? Additionally, does it matter if non-original objects are touched by the public during a site visit? If an HHM is able to create a digital collection, how can they do it effectively so that it enhances the visitor experience rather than simply providing a picture with the same information from the proverbial house tour? What objects will be chosen and who has the final say in this? Will the visitor’s experience of the objects online and out of context from the house itself be as rich as an on-site visit? Is it even responsible to create an online collection if there are so many other issues with the house, and where on the ‘to-do list’ of HHMs should creating a digital collection fall? Is it an HHM’s responsibility to have an online collection for those who cannot visit the house?

These are just a few of the questions I have come up with (some of which came to me in the middle of writing this reply), but I think there are many more that are important to think about with regards to HHMs, their collections, and the possibility of digital collections. Let me know other questions or thoughts you have in the comments below!

Hello From Your New Editor!

Hello fellow museum bloggers!

My name is Christina and I will be starting my second year as a master’s student in Museum Education at Tufts in the fall! You can find out more about me on the About the Blog page, but for now I will just say that I’m extremely excited to be the new editor of the Museum Studies Blog, and I’m hopeful that this coming year will bring many new, interesting, and thought-provoking topics to discuss with all of you. Please feel free to contact me via email at with any questions, ideas for blog posts, or content that you have already written that you would like to be featured on the blog (I’m more than happy to help edit!).

I’m really looking forward to the coming year and to hearing all your wonderful thoughts and ideas, and I hope you will find my posts engaging as well!


Preservation & Presentation: Tourists at Historic Sites (Part II)

Today’s post comes to you from current Tufts Museum Education student Carlos Lu. Please check see last weeks’ post for Part I. Check out these posts for more of Carlos’ writings.

Last time I wrote about a common paradoxical issue that faces many historic site museums: how to present history to the public while maintaining the site from the wear that very public inflicts upon it.  While the natural inclination may be to focus on the maintenance of the site as the wear builds up, that approach is a purely reactive measure.  Instead I present to you readers two examples of sites that use active attempts to prevent the wear to their sites, both primarily focusing on the tourists themselves.  Additionally, I want to highlight a slightly controversial trend in how the detrimental effects tourism has on historic sites is perceived.

With the expectation that the wear caused by tourism will negatively affect the area, taking a preemptive approach to how tourists flow in and out of an environment can mitigate those affects before they happen.  In Gulyang, China students of architecture and civil engineering used Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in order to map out the movement and development of tourism over the past century within their hometown.  By tracking the development of street patterns, buildings related to tourism, and using an algorithm tracking the literal ‘flow’ of tourist movements, GIS software can predict the most economically likely places for future development and where this development might conflict with heritage sites.  If certain services such as hotels or restaurants can be used to direct tourism around particular locations rather than through them, archaeological sites and the governments that want to utilize them can help ensure their survival.  Then it becomes just a matter of modifying zoning laws.  Understanding the inherent morphological evolution and how space is utilized allows local governments to better plan more sustainable tourism at historic sites.  While the technology is still relatively new, it provides positive benefits for historic site museum preemptive care.

Another way to involve tourists in the preemptive care of historic sites is to educate them on what their visitation actually does.  By disseminating information to tourists about the detrimental effects tourism has on historic sites, tourists themselves can play an active role in conservation.  In Hwange National Park of Zimbabwe, tourists were given a survey about their knowledge on the safety of the animals in the preserve.  Using convenience sampling, the park was able to determine that more than two thirds of visitors had knowledge of the potentially hazardous materials their visitation could expose to the animals.  More importantly the survey revealed that while local visitors received their knowledge from newspaper media, and foreign visitors received their knowledge from internet sources, the biggest source of conservation knowledge was from word-of-mouth; a general awareness from their communities, family, and friends that careless tourism could negatively affect the wildlife in the park.  This indicated an increased need for awareness programs instituted by the park.  While a natural park reserve is not a historic site museum, care of the animals within present much the same concerns of human involvement seen at historic sites.  As such, the same conclusions can be drawn about the need for awareness programs, word-of-mouth advertisement, and ensuring visitors are aware of the potentially negative effects tourism has on historic sites.

Probably the best example in recent memory of the role of public awareness plays with the preservation of historic sites is the public media’s response to an incident at Luxor Palace in Egypt.  In 2013 a tourist named Ding Jinhao wrote in Chinese “Ding Jinhao was here” on the walls of Luxor Palace, scraping his message into the millennia old building.  This teenager has since been eviscerated on the Chinese social media tool Weibo, an analogue of Twitter in the States.  This mass social shaming extended to the governmental level when the Chinese government issued a public statement warning Chinese citizens to behave whilst overseas.  While we certainly wouldn’t endorse any form of social media browbeating, the incident triggered an important shift in how Chinese tourists treat the various sites they visit.  An alternative approach to inundating visitors with a sense of shame would be to offer more awareness to visitors on the lasting effects tourism has on historic sites, highlighting how past events have effected sites today.

The two teenagers from the U.K. who visited Auschwitz had a desire to cherish cultural heritage that is admirable.  The natural predilection to wanting to own a piece of history got the better of them, though, and is representative of a mistake on the part of the Auschwitz site itself.  Visitors need to be better educated to the effects their involvement at historic sites have.  History is ephemeral and a historic site museum, and any other museum for that matter, struggles in futile against the tide of time in order to preserve what little of the past it can.  But at the same time, tourism is an integral part of the maintenance and care of a historic site museum.  Aware of the problems that come with tourism, such as the regular use or the attempts to bring home trinkets, can better prepare a museum to face the issues as they arise.  The best thing a historic site museum can do is educate its visitors of not only the history the site has, but also the part tourists play in keeping that history alive.  That means not just the metaphorical way their experiences keep the stories of the past alive, but the actual, real way their efforts of preservation while visiting can keep a site going.  By being aware of this problem, museums and tourists can better manage their collections for future generations.


Farewell, and an Introduction to Our New Editor

Last weekend, Tufts held commencement ceremonies for a variety of museum studies programs. Students graduated with the Art History Department, the History Department, the Education Department, and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. We were two of those graduates: Jess with the Art History department and Colleen with the Education department. As previous graduates know, it’s a bittersweet feeling. Being a student is a unique time that expands your knowledge and your skills. Hopefully we, along with all those who have graduated, are able to harness the curiosity that brought us to Tufts in the first place and channel it to create new and exciting endeavors in museums.

Colleen will be continuing on at her job with the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, teaching school programs and creating new children and family programming.

Jess will be continuing her jobs with the Harvard Botany Libraries and the Chinese Historical Society of New England (CHSNE).

We are excited to take our experiences here at the blog and at Tufts into our future ventures. We have enjoyed editing the blog this past year. Hearing your thoughts and ideas through comments and guest posts has been truly rewarding. However, with our graduation comes our departure from the editor-ship.

We are pleased to announce that your new blog editor will be Christina Errico. Christina is entering her second year in the Museum Education program. She has written several posts for the blog already – you can check them out here. While we will be sad to leave the blog, we know it will be in wonderful hands with Christina.


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