Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Category: Museum Topics (page 1 of 25)

Reflections on Reopening from Nick Pioppi, Senior Educator at the New England Aquarium

The New England Aquarium, along with many of Boston’s other cultural institutions, reopened on July 16th with pandemic-specific precautions. The Aquarium now has a one way path throughout the building, reduced capacity, additional sanitation stations, and requires visitors to wear masks. Now that the Aquarium has been open for almost a month, I checked in with Nick Pioppi, Supervisor and Senior Educator at the New England Aquarium, about the process of reopening.

Nick Pioppi conducting a virtual visit to the New England Aquarium.

How have things been at the Aquarium since reopening?

“Things have been very good. We feel very confident that we have established a safe, fun, and engaging experience for visitors. That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been some things that we’ve worked on or refined in terms of our process. We always come up with ways to become more efficient or make the process run a little bit more smoothly so we’ve definitely tweaked things as we’ve gone along.”

When the aquarium was closed, what were some strategies you used to reach your audience?

“We took a look at what we offered virtually and came up with some strategies to create new virtual content that was fun and engaging and kept people feeling connected to the aquarium, but also continued to foster and promote our mission. I think that was really important because we wanted people to understand that there were a lot of things that were still going on, like animal care and research efforts. We wanted to work hard to put those out front and use those as a way of connecting with visitors.”

With reopening, what are some challenges you’ve found with running educational programming?

A California sea lion reminds visitors to social distance.

“We are not leading any of our normal presentations on microphone. We are trying to avoid elements of an experience that might cause people to crowd and have difficulty maintaining physical distance from each other. Any sort of educational content or interpretation is happening on a one-on-one basis. We have staff that are stationed throughout the building with the primary goal of providing a logistically smooth and safe experience for visitors, but we’re slowly starting to integrate points of interpretation.”

“We’ve really had to just be a little bit more selective about that and focus more on safety and logistics and making sure the one way path is being followed. We’ve even had to close down elements of the aquarium, like the touch tanks or one particular exhibit called “The Science of Sharks” that is very interactive, just out of an abundance of caution.”

Speaking to the animals, how are they adjusting to having visitors again?

“For the most part, we are not noticing significant differences in behavior of the animals. Most of their daily routines were still going on during the closure. They were still getting fed regularly and the life support systems that keep them comfortable were being maintained. If they aren’t particularly reactive to our presence outside of their tank, then things are the same for them. There are a few exhibits that we’re noticing some subtle differences. To prepare the penguins, a week ahead of time we placed speakers around the exhibit and played crowd noise to get them accustomed to visitors again.”

Do you have any advice for museum educators during the pandemic?

“From my own experience, now is the time where it’s important to remember a lot of the basics of education, such as the customer service element and providing a nice alternate experience for visitors than what they’re having any given day. But this is also a time where innovation and trying new things out can be really beneficial. Trying to think of new ways to connect to people.”

“I think for institutions, it’s probably really scary to innovate and experiment because you’re worried about losing what little you have right now. But I think now is just a good a time as any to be innovative and stand out. Provide something that other museums and institutions aren’t necessarily providing.”

The New England Aquarium highlighted the work of the aquarists and researchers during the closure.

Are there any final thoughts you’d like to share?

“I think the community of educators is so important right now. I think it’s important right now to think about ways to connect. Connect with teachers that are struggling with virtual learning in the fall. Connect with people who may have been laid off from an institution because of budget cuts. Connect with people who might be educators but are doing a type of interpretation that’s really different from you. We can all learn from each other and support each other.”

Thank you so much, Nick, for meeting with me to chat about the Aquarium’s reopening. Follow the New England Aquarium’s Facebook and Instagram accounts for tons virtual content and updates. Also, the Aquarium is still fighting for COVID-19 relief funding, so use this link to contact your representative about providing crucial funding for both animal care and operating costs.

Celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act

July 26th, 2020 marked the thirty-year anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which made it illegal to discriminate against people based on a disability in areas including, but not limited to, employment, transportation, and public services. In an article, called “A Brief History of The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA),” Jillian Abel provides some historical context about the passing of the law and how it has been influential in recent years. According to Abel, active support for those with disabilities had began as early as the 1960s and resulted in the passing of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act which banned discrimination based on disabilities for those receiving federal funding. Over the years, activism continued and would eventually lead to the passing of the ADA. Since then the ADA has continued to make updates to their regulations with the intent of providing as much participation and access of equal quality to all individuals.

Museums have gradually made changes to become more ADA compliant. In an article by NEA Director of Accessibility, Beth Bienvenu, “Museums and the Americans with Disabilities Act at 25: Progress and Looking Ahead,” some of the accommodations made by museums are discussed such as audio guides, tactile tours, captioned video, sign-language interpreted tours, and wheelchair access to all physical spaces. Despite these efforts, however, Bienvenu also explains that a 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts found that “21 percent of all adults visited an art museum or gallery, but only 11 percent of adults with disabilities made such a visit.” She goes on, explaining that there is still more work to be done in order to provide more involvement for those with disabilities.

Last year, Claire Voon wrote an article, “Museums Are Finally Taking Accessibility for Visitors with Disabilities Seriously,” in which she discussed changes made by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in order to better serve visitors with disabilities. One of the actions taken by MoMA was to invite ten individuals with different impairments to walk through their spaces. Voon discusses the MoMA’s decision in more detail, articulating that while museums attempt to be more accessible, they often fail to consider the various kinds of accommodations visitors might need. In many cases, it takes someone with a disability walking through a space to indicate that there is a problem with access or inclusion.

In many cases, museums have taken steps in the right direction to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and create more accessibility to their events and spaces. However, as many of the articles have stated above, there is still much work to be done. In my own experience, interactions I have had with individuals with different impairments has greatly increased my awareness of potential barriers within museum spaces. While my awareness has been increased, I do not always have ideas on how to solve the problem. This is where knowing what resources are available to you come in handy. Below are a few links which provide information on the Americans with Disabilities Act itself and ideas on how to create a more accessible institution.


Are there experiences you have from a visit to a museum you would like to share? Consider creating a guest post on our blog to further the discussion of accessibility and inclusivity. 

Do you know of other useful resources that both current and future museum professionals could utilize to create more accessible environments? Please leave a comment below or send us a message through the “contact us” option located in the sidebar at right.

A Reflection on Lee Mingwei’s ‘Sonic Blossom’

Museums in the Boston area have started reopening this past week. I am very eager to get back out there to visit my old haunts and find new exhibits to explore. I have not had the opportunity to visit one yet, so instead I wanted to take this week’s blog post to reflect on a past museum experience. Last fall, I went to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to analyze a tour for ‘Teaching and Learning in Museums.’ Also last fall, Lee Mingwei’s Sonic Blossom was visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum as part of their special exhibition In the Company of Artists.

Lee Mingwei

Lee Mingwei is a Taiwanese-American artist known for his intimate participatory experiences. While Lee cared for his mother after her surgery, they listened to Franz Schubert’s Lieder. “These songs came as an unexpected gift to us, one that soothed us both and clearly helped with her healing.” Lee Mingwei’s goal with Sonic Blossom is to spread the gift of healing and transformation with Lieder. Professional opera singers were to move through art galleries, offer participants the gift of song, lead them to a chair, and serenade them. This is where I come in.

I had just finished my tour, learning about Isabella Stewart Gardner’s eccentric life and art collection, and found myself wandering the first floor galleries when a woman in an ornate robe slowly approached me. She asked: “May I give you a gift of song?” At this point I had no idea what Sonic Blossom was, so I agreed. I assumed that I would join a group of people for a special presentation on Gardner’s collection of instruments. Perhaps she was collecting an audience for a small demonstration. I was wrong.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum courtyard.

The singer lead me to a single chair in the courtyard and began singing to me, and only me, with very intense eye contact. At the Gardner, the courtyard is the center of the whole museum, a lush garden surrounded by cloisters, and visible throughout the museum. When the music started, all visitors seemed to turn and stare, heads popping out of archways like little prairie dogs. This was not what I signed up for. My eyes flitted back and forth, occasionally making contact with the singer to let her know that I appreciated her talent while managing the awkwardness of the very public and very intimate performance. My heart was pounding, my face was flushing, and I had no idea what to do with my hands. After four minutes (or an hour, who’s to say?), the performance ended. I sheepishly thanked the singer and sunk back into the shadows of the galleries.

I wish I had known what I was getting into when I agreed to receive “a gift of song,” but knowing myself, I would have declined. I’m grateful for Sonic Blossom for pushing me out of my comfort zone. Throughout the rest of my visit, I paid special attention to the later performances, both appreciating their beauty and feeling immense relief that I was no longer the one in the chair. Now that nine months have passed, I can reflect more on the magic of Sonic Blossom. I was very lucky to experience a beautiful opera performance in a palatial courtyard. Was I healed or transformed? It’s hard to say, but it is certainly something that I will not forget anytime soon.

Rising to the Challenge of Economic Hardship

As I was scrolling through some news articles about museums on my phone, I came across an interesting article about how the Musée Rodin in Paris is using revenue from the sale of bronze casts of Auguste Rodin’s sculptures in order to decrease their budget deficit due to the pandemic. I was not previously aware of the museum’s decision from two years ago to dramatically increase the number of works that can be cast, a decision that is clearly benefitting the museum now. Initially, it seems strange to allow for the sculptures to be made again in bronze and sold to private collectors and other museums; however, this decision was allowed for in the institution’s bequest and Rodin himself stipulated that the museum has the rights to his works. This year, two large bronze pieces have been sold to a Middle Eastern museum, helping the Musée Rodin to lower their deficit to about three million euros. The institution has also set up an online donations page from which they have received 1,200 euros.

Musée Rodin

            What efforts have other museums made to decrease their financial burdens? The Museum of the City of New York is discussing launching virtual adult education courses that might include online discussions moderated by curators that are focused on New York topics. The museum is also putting the online programming it has released during the pandemic to good use: it has collected over 4,000 photographs and “Covid Stories” documenting New York’s experience of the pandemic and curators are now preparing an exhibition for the fall centered on this topic (using a previous 2018 exhibition focused on past epidemics in the city, titled “Germ City” as a model).

As this year's flu season begins, we reflect on the 1918 influenza pandemic and other contagious diseases the city has had to contend with.

Jacob A. (Jacob August) Riis (1849-1914). [Infirmary.] ca. 1890. Museum of the City of New York 90.13.2.322.

Meanwhile, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in Germany is aiming to restructure the extensive bureaucracy within the foundation and perhaps even dissolve and replace it with a new foundation to manage the state museums in a more streamlined and concise structure. This would also allow for more budget autonomy for each individual museum as well as restructuring financing in order to allow for improved long-term planning.

Berlin's Museum Island at sunrise (imago images/Panthermedia)

            This is an extremely difficult time for all museums as they struggle to survive the economic hardships caused by the pandemic. Many institutions have had to furlough staff and cancel programming, and still some might not survive. However, it is encouraging to see the diverse and creative methods – and self-evaluation – that some institutions are employing in order to improve their economic prospects.

How Science Museums Can Talk About Race.

As people across the country fight back against police brutality and systemic racism, cultural institutions need to leverage their platform as trusted sources of information to educate the public about racism in the United States. Discussions about race are typically limited to art and history museums, while science museums tend to focus on the environment, health, and conservation. Science museums are not exempt, however, as racism intersects with both environmental science and health science. Moving forward, it’s critical that science museums start addressing systemic racism in order to better serve both their missions and their communities.

RACE: Are We So Different? debuted in 2007 and has visited over 40 institutions.

The American Anthropological Association and the Science Museum of Minnesota worked together to develop an exhibit entitled RACE: Are We So Different?  in 2007 to explore race and racism in the United States. The exhibit combines history, science, and lived experiences to challenge how we think about race. The exhibit has since travelled around the country to various science museums, with its most recent stop at the Durham Museum in Omaha, NE. A traveling exhibit that addresses race is great, but science museums have a responsibility to do more.

Many science museums focus on topics about the environment and sustainability, but from my experience, rarely talk about environmental racism. Environmental racism is the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color. For example, Black and Latinx Americans are more likely to live in areas with high air pollution leading to an array of health problems. Overall, people of color are on the front lines of the climate crisis and have fewer resources to deal with the consequences. In the U.S., the white upper middle class will be the last to feel the catastrophic effects of climate change. These are the same demographics that tend to visit museums. To both better serve communities of color and accurately deliver conservation messaging, science museums have a duty to address environmental racism head on through educational programming and activism.

Ending our reliance on fossil fuels is the key to reversing climate change and a fundamental part of environmental messaging. Non-renewable energy is also tightly linked with colonialism and the destruction of indigenous land and culture. In 2016, the Dakota Access Pipeline was rerouted to pass directly upstream from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation without understanding the environmental impacts. Only this year did the D.C. district court order a proper environmental review. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is still fighting to shut down the DAPL. To divorce climate change and sustainability from human rights is a disservice to the indigenous communities that have led the environmental movement from the beginning.

From earthjustice.org

Health sciences and medicine also have a deeply racist history. Ethics and consent have evolved over time, but have taken advantage of people of color in particular. Jon Quier experimented with smallpox inoculation on enslaved peoples in Jamaica. The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male deliberately misled black men into believing they were receiving treatment in order to study the progression of the disease. In 1951, Henrietta Lacks’ immortal cancer cells were taken without her or her family’s knowledge or consent. These HeLa Cells have been instrumental in understanding polio, HIV, HPV, and thousands of other diseases, but have sparked questions about informed consent and collecting patient cells. Museums are uniquely equipped to present these questions and facilitate discussions on bioethical standards. It’s important to acknowledge and confront how racism has and continues to shape medical advancements worldwide.

Whale People: Protectors of the Sea at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

As educational institutions, most science museums are already addressing both the current environmental crisis and human health. As cultural institutions, they need to include whole narratives if they are going to properly serve their communities. The Natural History Museum is a traveling pop-up museum that “makes a point to include and highlight the socio-political forces that shape nature.” Past exhibits include Whale People: Protectors of the Sea which addresses orca conservation, pollution, and industrialization of the Pacific Northwest in collaboration with the Lummi Nation. Mining the HMNS tackles the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences’ relationships with the fossil fuel industry by investigating exhibits in HMNS and highlighting the stories of communities along the Houston Ship Canal.

All science museums need to take The Natural History Museum’s lead and project marginalized voices. To remain apolitical is to continue whitewashing both environmental and health sciences and to silence BIPOC communities. Science museums need to uplift activists of color by giving them a platform to speak. Science museums need to diversify their boards, staff, and leadership to dismantle the white narratives that are pervasive throughout. And science museums need to adapt their missions to address the social and political factors that influence both nature, health, and scientific discovery.

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