Earlier this week I attended a workshop on Building Effective Museum Experiences. Though the focus was mainly on museum education and on creating a more visitor-friendly museum, the role of the museum’s collection was discussed as well. Since I have input into my museum’s exhibits, especially in the consideration of the artifacts which will be displayed, this seemed to be a workshop I should attend!
The workshop was held at Historic London Town and Gardens, in Edgewater, Maryland. Their location on the South River made for some wonderful views! The opening speaker, Thomas Mayes, from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, shared some interesting observations about the elements which make up a successful tour. He also shared the following clip from the movie "Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure", to illustrate some elements of a not-so-great tour: View Pee-Wee’s Alamo tour here. Though it was an unexpected (and entertaining!) source for an illustration of a museum tour, it certainly did convey the elements of a “bad” tour. I suspect everyone has had at least one tour experience similar to this. Tour guides can sometimes drone on for too long, not take their audience into consideration, or not want to answer questions. Museum exhibits are sometimes made to feel too sterile, or are focused too much on the “stuff” inside the case or behind the ropes. People want more than to hear a scripted tour, or to just see a random group of old things behind glass. So, once our speaker started listing the attributes of a more successful tour, I naturally started taking a mental inventory of my museum’s exhibits. I don’t want our guests taking the Civil War version of Pee-Wee’s Alamo tour! Successful tours don’t just focus on what the “things” are, but on how the artifacts convey an idea. This display shows some games from the Civil War, which shows that the soldiers needed diversions while in camp. This also helps our visitors to understand that the soldiers actually spent more time in camp than on the battlefield. Good displays don’t avoid the difficult or unpleasant facts. Amputations were a very difficult fact which many soldiers and their families had to face. However, this display is probably one of the most popular in our museum. It shows the instruments and equipment which were used, and allows us to tell our visitors WHY so many amputations were necessary. Successful tours and displays utilize the “voices” of the people from the time. Visitors to the NMCWM are able to follow Private Peleg Bradford’s story through a series of displays which contain letters he wrote home to his family. Probably the most important element of a good tour or display is that it tells a story which teaches something to the visitors. Our final exhibit about modern medicine serves to reinforce the story of how much of modern medicine is based on the medical advances from the Civil War. So, overall it seems my museum is doing a pretty good job. In any sort of evaluation, there is nearly always one area for improvement though. One other thing listed by the speaker was that displays should engage as many senses as possible. Museums tend to be limited to sight and sound. Touch, smell, and even taste should be incorporated when possible. To illustrate this point, there was even a plate of cookies passed around to us! Though we do have a few hands-on displays in the museum, this seems to be the area which we could look at improving. I was pleased to realize that the changes we have planned for our new gallery do include more hands-on and interactive components. I think we are headed in the right direction. I suppose it couldn’t hurt to offer our guests a cookie too?! Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.