Museum Studies at Tufts University

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Case Studies in Community: The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley

Often when a museum is dealing with tight margins, dropping interest from local visitors, and growing infrastructure concerns, they are inclined to draw inward, hunker down, and try to weather the storm by protecting the visitors, donors, and physical spaces they need to survive. Unfortunately, this can backfire, further alienating an institution from the very people that can stabilize and enliven it. While it may feel risky, going out into the community can be a pathway to survival and growth for a museum. I recently had the good fortune to meet with one such organization, the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, who took this route.

The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley (MSV) was created in 2005 with a two-fold mission: To house the fine and decorative arts collections of Julian Glass Jr., whose ancestral estate the MSV is built on, and to collect and share the arts and culture of the Shenandoah Valley. The Museum came about after Glass designated in his will that his family estate, Glen Burnie, become a historic house museum after his death. Glen Burnie opened to the public in 1997 and the house and museum were moderately successful, seeing about thirty thousand visitors a year in 2013. But the MSV seemed unable to grow their visitorship beyond that point and had the all too common experience of small museums where the same group of people was constantly engaged with the site, with little interaction with the larger community.

Executive Director Dana Hand Evans, who came on board around that time saw the potential of the site and set out to bring more people into the MSV. They entered into a phase of strategic planning and created a ten year Master Plan to shape the MSV into a “cultural park” for the town of Winchester, VA and the Valley beyond. Evans made a series of curatorial, programmatic, and financial decisions that resulted in big changes and an uptick in local engagement with the museum.

Some of these decisions were small, but made the MSV more welcoming. They opened up their spaces to local organizations for meetings and other events at no charge. Suddenly the local college had access to an offsite space with a piano they could hold concerts in, and local non-profits didn’t need to search for meeting space, and lines of dialogue were opening up. At the same time, the MSV made the choice to stop pursuing grant opportunities that were open to social services. The Shenandoah Valley is a relatively poor area, with the majority of the students in the public school system eligible for free or reduced lunch. In reducing competition for funding for needed services, the MSV signaled to the community that they wanted to help build the people of the Valley up, not just preserve the memory of the people who lived there in the past.

A bigger change was to completely revise the interpretive experience of Glen Burnie, their historic house museum. Previously, the house had been a traditional historic house, with roped-off rooms displaying beautiful objects but with little context about who actually lived in the house. The house needed structural work and they had obtained an NEH grant to remove the contents of the house, do repairs, then reinstall it exactly as it had been before. However, Evans saw an opportunity to do more than maintain the status quo. The MSV undertook a series of listening sessions with community leaders, organizations, teachers, and more to hear their concerns and interests for the site, and to discuss ways to bring more people into the house. Evans and the MSV returned the NEH grant which did not allow for interpretive changes to be made, and sought alternative funding for a new interpretation that featured Julian Glass, Jr. and R. Lee Taylor as central figures in the house, giving visitors a peek into the mid-century life of two gay men who preserved and restored the house and gardens, filled it with fine decorative arts and furniture, and turned it into a social gathering place for their extensive group of friends and family.

Glen Burnie’s new welcome panel, featuring snapshots from Glass and Taylor’s personal collection.

Building on the success of that risk, Evans and the MSV have taken many more steps to build stronger bonds between the museum and the larger community. Local artists are now displayed in a small gallery, and a cafe was turned into a makerspace that offers classes and workshops to the public. Other arts education spaces have also been constructed. Seeking a way to expand use of their considerable grounds, the MSV recently completed fundraising to add three miles of walking and biking trails that will connect them to the larger Winchester Green Circle Trail and expand recreational space access for the community. And a new event oval is currently under construction, allowing the MSV to grow a small annual concert into a concert series that brings in thousands of visitors each summer.

In all, the MSV has doubled its visitorship in the past six years, bringing in over seventy thousand visitors in 2018. It has taken a lot of work, fundraising, and communication, but the MSV is in a better position now that they have devoted themselves to creating and strengthening their community connections. For any smaller organizations out there wondering how to create their own sustainable futures, looking at the MSV’s philosophy may be the key.

Curatorial Innovations Lecture, April 17, 6PM

The American Land Museum: Places as Cultural Artifacts

Curatorial Innovations Lecture. 
Free and Open to the Public.

Menschel Hall, Harvard Art Museums, 32 Quincy Street

Wednesday, April 17, 6:00 pm

Matthew Coolidge, Director, Center for Land Use Interpretation

The Center for Land Use Interpretation explores how land in the United States is apportioned, utilized, and perceived. Through exhibitions and public programs, the Center interprets built landscapes—from landfills and urban waterfalls to artificial lakes—as cultural artifacts that help define contemporary American life and culture. Coolidge will discuss the Center’s approach to finding meaning in the intentional and incidental forms we create and also talk about the Center’s efforts to develop the American Land Museum, a curated selection of locations across the country that exemplifies our relationship with the American landscape.

Matthew Coolidge is Founder and Director of the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) in Los Angeles, a non-profit research and education organization founded in 1994 that is interested in understanding the nature and extent of human interaction with the earth’s surface, and in finding new meanings in the intentional and incidental forms that we individually and collectively create. He has a background in contemporary art, architecture, and film, and studied environmental science as an undergraduate at Boston University. He has been a teacher in the Curatorial Practice Program at the California College of Art, and has lectured and worked with students at universities around the U.S. and abroad.

Free event parking at the Broadway Garage, 7 Felton Street

Presented by the Harvard Museums of Science & Culture in collaboration with the Harvard Art Museums and the Harvard Graduate School of Design

Collections Internship Opportunity – Royall House & Slave Quarters

Cummings Collections Fellowship

The purpose of the Cummings Collections Fellowship is to develop and populate a PastPerfect database of the objects in the Royall House and Slave Quarters collection and include any documentation that will help determine loan or ownership status, restrictions, provenance, and condition. In the process, any objects stored in unsafe conditions will be rehoused.

Stipend for 2019 is $5,000.

Hours are flexible, approximately 250 hours.

The collection of household furnishings at the Royall House and Slave Quarters is comprised of individual gifts, purchases, abandoned loans, and a single large bequest of furniture. The records for the collection are uneven; there is little information about the history of any object unless a written record is physically attached to it by means of a note card, tag, or label. Additional documentation includes inventories, appraisals, information from board meeting minutes starting in 1906, and uncatalogued correspondence with past donors. A modern inventory of the collection was started in 2004 and most objects have been tagged with a new inventory number. There are approximately 750 objects in the collection.

Qualifications: Knowledge of collections management practices and experience with PastPerfect or a similar database.

How to apply: Send resume and cover letter to President@RoyallHouse.org.

The Royall House and Slave Quarters is a museum in Medford, Massachusetts. In the eighteenth century, the Royall House and Slave Quarters was home to the largest slaveholding family in Massachusetts and the enslaved Africans who made their lavish way of life possible.

Weekly Job Roundup!

April showers bring May graduates! Find your future now with the job posts for the week of April 14.

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Why we should look towards the hospitality industry to improve visitor experience

This post was written in collaboration with second year Museum Education M.A. student Taylor Fontes

When moving to the Greater Boston Area to pursue my Masters degree in Museum Education, I made a hard decision. I chose to continue working in restaurants (a job I’ve done since I was a teenager) instead of pursuing a position at a local museum. I made this decision because restaurant work is a great way to make fast cash. As I move forward into a career in which that will no longer be the case, I wanted to start off strong with as little debt as possible and ample time to complete my course work. Sometimes, I have struggled with this choice as it has meant there is a gap in my resume when it comes to museum work. However, I have recently realized how important working in the hospitality industry has been to my experience in museums. So many of the skills I have learned in hospitality are transferrable to skills needed in museums. I firmly believe that these hospitality skills have strongly informed my ability to provide positive visitor experiences in museum environments.

When Taylor brought up the idea for this post she came from almost the opposite perspective. While she had been working in visitor service positions for a long time, she was new to the restaurant industry. Quickly however, she began to be referred to as a “rock star hostess.” So how did Taylor pick up the restaurant brand of hospitality so quickly? For her, it was so similar to the type of experience she strived to provide for visitors in museums she has worked in.

As museums become more visitor-centered and less object-centered it is important for us to see ourselves as institutions of hospitality. We can look towards the hospitality industry to help inform our practices within the museum. So what are our biggest takeaways?

  1. The vocabulary we use matters: Most hospitality focused restaurants don’t refer to their patrons as customers. It is too transactional. We focus on our guests. Guests are those that we invite in, they are wanted, accommodated, and catered too. In museums we need to think of our visitors as guests as well.
  2. First impressions are everything: From the atmosphere, to the signage, to the person greeting you. In a restaurant, the host/hostess is your first point of contact. They will set the tone for your entire experience, so friendly and personable staff are a must. But what about museums? Is there someone to greet visitors? Are the visitor service staff responsive? What is the tone we are setting?
  3. Restaurants know how to sell their product: Hospitality industry professionals have a lot of experience in selling their product. From the restaurant itself to up-selling the food and drink, this takes lots of knowledge of not just the products but of the audience as well. We need to know our audiences and understand what they want out of their experience. As we know, there are many different types of visitors with varying needs.
  4. Flexibility: Not all guests are looking for the same experience. We have to be flexible and fluid in order to provide satisfying and enriching experiences to a diverse audience. The same approach will not work with a group of millennials out for drinks that will work with an older couple having lunch. The same is true for museum visitors.
  5. Steps of service: Restaurants have very defined steps of service that guide our guests experiences. This does not in turn mean there is no free-choice within it. However, by creating these steps of service restaurants are able to be flexible while still provide superior service. Many museums think about visitor flow when designing exhibits. Creating steps of service within a museum experience can help us to better serve our visitors.
  6. Empathy and Tolerance: Restaurant professionals are highly experienced in empathy and tolerance. While we may use these words differently in the museum field. It is important as museum professionals that we don’t just teach empathy and tolerance but that we live it. In order to provide positive visitor experiences it is important that we can empathize with our visitors to better understand their needs as well as be tolerant to those that have different needs.
  7. The human connection: Hospitality professionals are experienced in creating personal connections in short periods of time. We talk to people from many different walks of life on a daily basis and if we want them to return it is important to create those connections. This, to me, is the biggest transferrable skill to the museum field. We want our visitors to make personal connections to what we are presenting. If museum professionals are not adept in making those connections how can they design and implement experiences that do. These social skills are so important.
  8. Ability to anticipate visitor needs: It is so important in both restaurants and museums for staff to be able to anticipate our guests and visitors needs before they can verbalize, or even know, what those needs are. These can be as basic as providing easily accessible bathrooms and comfortable seating or more complex such as providing for guests with disabilities. We need to anticipate everything our visitors may need when designing programming and exhibitions.

While this is just a short list there are many more things that museums can learn from restaurants as museums become more and more visitor focused.

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