A Day at the Museum

Exploring what life is like behind the scenes

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Why do people go to exhibitions? -Part Three-

Posted by Stephanie on May 31, 2010

Today I will talk about the final reason I have found that people use to justify their museum visits.  It is one of the most fundamental and yet profound reasons – to learn.  Museum visitors enjoy learning things they never knew before, or they like to explore exhibits on a topic they are familiar with, but either way they view their visit as a success – and a joy – when they come away with knowledge they did not have before.

Many people are like my sister in that they enjoy going to museum exhibitions “for the opportunity to learn something new.”  Sometimes it is too much of a commitment to read an entire book on a subject you know nothing about, but as my friend Kathleen commented, one can be “interested enough to spend a few hours and some money at a museum to learn something new.”

Others enjoy touring exhibitions to gain a new perspective on something they know about already.  Kathleen again explains how she likes this kind of learning experience “because seeing how the items are arranged and what information is included or excluded gives me a fresh perspective, and often reminds me of aspects I’ve forgotten (or never learned).”  Even when the exhibition’s topic is something we think we know everything about, like chocolate, sometimes, like my mother-in-law Toni, we can “learn a wider scope of [our] favorite food than [we] ever would have guessed.”

And finally, the feelings people can gain while at a museum can be even more memorable than what they learn in it.  Like my dad said, sometimes “people can substitute Google or Wikipedia on their laptop instead of making footprints on the floor of a real museum.  Maybe so, and maybe some can, but the inside of a museum is the ultimate 3-D (plus) experience — how could you possibly duplicate the feeling you get touching a part of the grafitti-filled Berlin Wall at the Newseum through your computer screen?”

This final reason – to learn – is particularly important to those of us who work in museums, because many of us like to think we are teachers – not in the traditional sense, but in a way that appeals to all kinds of learners.  That is why there is often so much variety in exhibitions: text for the readers, objects and photos for the visual learners, and interactive elements for the tactile learners.  So everyone can come away from an exhibition with their own understanding of the story we are trying to teach – and it can be an intensely personal experience, too.  To learn more about learning styles in a museum context, visit the Family Learning Forum’s article “Integrating Learning Styles” by the USS Constitution Museum Team.

Well, that was an enlightening experience for me.  Sometimes we get so bogged down in the little details of our job that it’s refreshing to get some outside perspectives on why we do what we do.  So thanks for everyone’s input!


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Why do people go to exhibitions? -Part Two-

Posted by Stephanie on May 30, 2010

A group of friends enjoys visiting the Walters Art Museum. Photo courtesy Walters Art Museum.

Yesterday I began to compile some information about why my friends and family members enjoy visiting museum exhibitions.  The second main reason I discovered that many of them shared was that they enjoy having a social experience while touring exhibitions.  Browsing the internet, reading a book, and even watching a documentary are generally solitary pursuits, but when people want to spend quality time with their friends and family, they often turn to museums.  Why?

Well, my mom did some research on her own and polled her book club.  One explanation for why she and her friends enjoy going to museums as a social outing is that it’s “a great group activity that accommodates different interests … [when you can] go as a family and everyone can pick and choose what [they want] to see, study [or] learn.”

While most groups don’t move en masse from one object to the next, and often don’t all see or experience the exhibition in exactly the same way, it can still be a shared experience for them.  My dad described how fun it can be when everyone comes together again to “share what we have seen from our own perspectives.”  When everyone combines what they have seen and learned, the whole group can benefit.

Of course, a common reason for group museum visits – as we know well in our nation’s capital – is that it is one way to learn about or experience the history or culture of a place we are visting as tourists.  As my mom wrote, she often likes going to exhibitions “for the adventure of it all…ooh we’re going to the big city…let’s check out their museum!”  And my sister agrees: she thinks of a museum visit as something fun to do, and it provides an excuse to “to get out and about with other people interested in history.”

And even if you go to a museum alone, there is always a chance that you might meet some great people there.  As my friend Kathleen wrote, “secretly I’ve always hoped that I would meet the love of my life at a museum…”  You never know; it could happen!

Come back tomorrow for the final installment of our discussion of why people like going to museum exhibitions…

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Why do people go to exhibitions? -Part One-

Posted by Stephanie on May 29, 2010

Everyone needs a little justification for what they do – a feeling that their job is worthwhile and meaningful.  So I set out to find some.  I wanted to find out why people go to museum exhibitions, when they could easily Google the topic, watch a documentary on the History or Discovery channels, or even, in an old-fashioned way, read a book.  What is it, I wondered, about exhibitions that draws people out of their chairs and to a museum?

To find answers to my question, I sent out an email to friends and family to get their input.  My sources range from other museum professionals to friends of mine whose only direct connection to a museum is me.  Despite the variety of their backgrounds and interest, I discovered that many of them agree on three main points:

  • To see and interact with real, three-dimensional objects;
  • To have a social experience; and
  • To learn something new.

Many people said, in one way or another, that seeing tangible objects from earth’s history and human history make the subject more understandable.  For example, my sister Jennifer said one of the main reasons she goes to exhibitions is “to get a chance to “touch and feel” the history – to see it in order to imagine it.”  She added that she is “such a visual person that seeing a dress worn, a table used, or the actual steamer trunk helps [her] really envision [herself] in history.”  My friend Caroline agrees: “Seeing Monet’s brush strokes makes the technique real.”

Learning is fun at this computer-based interactive at the Science Museum in London. Taken by Flickr user Samuel Mann.

Others enjoy the tactile experience of interacting with the physical objects in the exhibitions.  Comparing exhibitions to other ways of learning, my past professor Kym explained that “Computers aren’t tactile, they aren’t responsive, they aren’t environmental.”  Another friend, Anna, said that she is “not somebody who can absorb information just by reading it in a book/online/etc. but seeing objects and using interactives … makes any information far more likely to be remembered & recalled at a later time.”

And finally, another huge difference between exhibitions and other media that is such a draw is the spatial nature of an exhibit – it becomes a journey of discovery.  My friend Kelsey writes that she likes going to exhibitions “because they tend to be set up in such a way that as a patron you feel as if you are transported back to an era, to a location, or drawn into the story underlying the exhibit.  Although TV documentaries also draw viewers in around a story there are not tangible 3D objects that you can walk through or experience in person as you can in an exhibit.”

So it appears that one of the defining elements of a museum exhibition – the display of tangible artifacts – is also one of the main reasons people like visiting museums.  For the rest of this discussion, tune in later to see what else they had to say!

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Happy International Museum Day (belated)!

Posted by Stephanie on May 20, 2010

So I just found out that May 18, 2010 was International Museum Day 2010 as declared by the International Council of Museums. The theme for 2010 is “Museums for Social Harmony,” and apparently there were events taking place at museums all over the world in celebration of our very own day.

According to An Laishun, writing for the Organizing Committee Working Group on the theme of the 22nd ICOM General Conference, “Museums provide a structured platform for interactions between cultures, which makes them ideal ambassadors for intercultural communication. They make it easier to acquire knowledge of cultures and gain insights into them by presenting the facts about them and their histories in an objective way, thereby mitigating cultural conflicts arising from misunderstandings.” What a great goal. But sometimes I wonder if we ask too much of our museums. Yes, museums can educate and create awareness and sensitivity in our visitors, but sometimes they are just a fun place to go. I am not saying that we should not shoot for these lofty ideals that will benefit humankind on a grand scale, but that we still need to be realistic about what the individual visitor wants and expects when they come to our museums.

Someone go tell the President – we’ve found the solution to cultural conflicts – just ask the museums for help!

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What is A Day at the Museum?

Posted by Stephanie on May 20, 2010

Is it a place where you can learn about what goes on behind the scenes at a museum? Will it encourage you to go visit area  museums to check out great exhibitions or fascinating programs? Can it foster discussions about current events in the museum world? Will it inspire you to muse about the deeper purpose of what a museum is and what it can be?

Yes, it can and it will!

As this is my first attempt to join the blog-o-sphere, bear with me as I work out the kinks. And I welcome any and all suggestions for topics or events I can discuss!

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