NB: Upon beginning to write this post, I realized it was much longer than I could reasonably expect someone else to read. For this reason, I will be writing posts about yesterday for the next few days.
A lot of my department was out yesterday, and I’m trying to do a lot of thinking about museums and exhibits, what works and why, so I decided to visit several museums in quick succession– a sort of “Museum Walkabout.” I also decided to broadcast my activities over the course of the day over social media. I’m using this space to bring those posts together.
I wanted to visit as many museums as I could take in. I focused on Boston’s busy and developing waterfront district.
I awoke at 6:30, and by 7:30 I was plugging away on email and other tasks I’d perform later in the day if I’d been going into the office.
My day of #museumwalkabout begins in a banal enough manner: catching up with email while the morning news is quietly on in the background— Tad Suiter (@retius) July 27, 2017
After a couple hours of that, I walked to the train station. I was struck, even while walking in my town, by how much Americana-themed stuff is around Boston. Working at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, a lot of designers tend to advocate for more Americana in our design.
But the greater Boston area is so overwhelmed with Americana. Even in, like, mens’ rooms and stuff. It’s almost as bad as it is in Philadelphia, here. And to me, that’s not creating a visual identity. It’s just more of the same.
Thinking about that as I walked to the train station, I plopped into my seat on the train and began to read an article by John Falk that a friend had recently given me.
It got me thinking about a class I took with Brenda Dervin at Ohio State years ago:
…conceptualizes museum visitor experiences and Brenda Dervin's work on sense-making. #MuseumWalkabout— Tad Suiter (@retius) July 27, 2017
Falk talks about visitors to museums having “identity related needs” that motivate their visits to museums. The museum is somewhere we come to reflect the world to us, but we expect it to do so in ways that address how we see ourselves and why we visit.
Something about this reminds me of what Dr. Dervin talked about– about sensemaking being how people bridge gaps in understanding… that it’s always, when multiple people are involved, a dialogical process…
As I continued to read, Falk gave a typology of different sorts of visitors: Explorers, Facilitators, Spiritual Pilgrims, etc.
This got me thinking about how we prime the pump, and let people know what kind of museum experience they’re looking for:
…aren't just vulgar corporate concepts. It's important that a museum properly conveys what kind of experience visitors should expect…— Tad Suiter (@retius) July 27, 2017
…so they come in to the museum with the right set of assumptions about how they expect to experience the museum. #MuseumWalkabout— Tad Suiter (@retius) July 27, 2017
A museum that doesn’t have strong branding, a strong identity– and especially any museum that isn’t of a standard type (“Art Museum,” “Natural History Museum,” etc.)– the visitor won’t know how to expect to behave when they get there. They won’t know what kind of experience to expect. They might even not come, because they don’t understand what kind of visitor experience they will have, and figure they’re not missing anything.
I’m someone who works in the nonprofit sector. Almost always have been. Even when I worked as a temp, I requested only temp work at nonprofits. I instinctively bristle when people start talking about “branding” and “messaging” and “identity” as a corporate concept. But at the end of the day, museums need these things.
I got off the train at North Station, and headed through the streets of the North End until I arrived at my first destination:
I have to admit, my initial impression of the Paul Revere House wasn’t especially positive. Well, it was cheap at five dollars, so that impression was very good. But my first impression upon entering the house was that it very much was reflective of typical Historic House Museum problems: No photos! No Touching! There was one small pot that an (of course costumed) interpreter told us belonged to Paul Revere, and a child’s chair that belonged to his son.
Rather than this transporting me back in time to the days of the Revere clan, it just made me look around, practice unenjoyable habits of discernment: how much is real or original? How much is period? How much is 20th century repro? We as visitors were held back behind a line, unable to engage with the house. And so we shuffled along to the next room.
Which was even worse– plastic food on the table only further distanced me from the “historic” experience of the house. We went up a narrow stairwell– don’t open that door! You can’t go on the third floor!– and when we had arrived on the second floor, we’d traveled in time at least a generation or two. I think it was Early Republic era, but I wouldn’t swear to it. I’d checked out.
Despite the fact that we were on the second floor, a very modern door took us out to a catwalk, which connected to a second building, where there were modern restrooms and some small exhibits. There, I found the first thing I got really excited about:
The diorama of Revere’s workshop let me do what the historic house seemed bound and determined not to let me do: to imagine the living past, to think about the people and the lifeways that made this location relevant. I took photos of it, pressing my cell phone to the glass. It was the first thing I’d gotten really excited about.
And this was a theme that reoccurred to me several times during the course of the day, in different forms: the idea that in some ways, simulation can be more powerful than recreation. Our inner critic always tries to pick at supposed verisimilitude. It’s vexing, like an itchy scab.
Just as with robots and computer animation, it seems like it’s better to stay clearly on the right side of the uncanny valley when trying to give people an experience that’s evocative of the past.
Or, to put it another way:
Verisimilitude and the "authentic" are always, ultimately, a distraction. But they are also important to some visitors.— Tad Suiter (@retius) July 27, 2017
Then I went outside, where I found the most exciting thing on the grounds– and the biggest missed opportunity:
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#MuseumWalkabout field note: coolest thing about the Paul Revere House: City of Boston archeological team doing a small dig in a corner of the property where they're having a drainage problem. Wish there was signage to explain the project, but the guy I hassled was happy to tell me about it. They should be programming around this, could be the highlight of the summer!
…I realize that they were basically excavating an area that had been an alley used for drainage, but here was real archeological work being done on site, looking for real items, lost to history! I couldn’t believe they weren’t highlighting it more. They should be running programs around it, and setting up some seating so that people could sit and observe the work.
That said, the volunteer I talked to was very friendly and helpful, and was pleased as punch to talk about the project.