Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Book Review - Small Museum Toolkit 5: Interpretation: Education, Programs, and Exhibits

I can't say that I was really excited for this book. I'm a collections kid, so while I appreciate a good program or exhibit when I encounter them, my creative juices don't often get flowing at the idea of developing a new educational offering. Having said that, I learned a bit from this one, and can definitely appreciate it as a resource for museum workers whose job it is to tackle this subject. This book consists of 5 chapters and lots of check lists and case studies - it's easy to see how you can apply the lessons on interpretation to any museum setting. I like that.

The first chapter uses the analogy of a concert to talk through interpretive planning. A big piece of this is the museum tour. So let's talk tours. When I was a summer student, I worked with someone who liked to compete over the length of a tour, their idea being the longer the better. Was this person reading his audience and engaging in meaningful conversation with visitors? If so, at some point did the tour of the museum stop being a tour and become a visit between people? Don't scoff; it happens. To bring this back to the book, the first chapter talks about conducting audience-centred interpretation that aligns with your interpretive plan and adjusts to the situation. "A good interpretive plan should offer multiple options and vehicles for the visitor and the tour guide alike". The author doesn't pull any punches, and even says not to do a three, two, or even one-hour tour. Yes! Let's quit the cookie-cutter tour game. Let's be more flexible, ask our visitors more questions about their interests, and pay attention to body language and other clues about how much they are enjoying their museum experience.

The second chapter is on interpreting difficult issues. It talks about the old method of single perspectives being described with artifacts tucked safely behind plexiglas cabinets, and how museums have been very gradually breaking down those physical & invisible barriers. Different viewpoints are being shared - culture, gender, age, philosophy - and as a result we are providing the public with a more holistic view of history. This is obviously a very difficult area to navigate, but as the author puts it: "to ignore or even sidestep these types of local issues is inauthentic and will undermine the interpretive goals you have set."  I've heard a few museum people say that their community doesn't have any difficult issues or shady history, but trust me, it's there. Every community has it. The author acknowledges this as well, and remarks that in some cases the public is well aware of the sketchy history, basically saying "it's about time you caught up" when the museum starts to incorporate this information in its interpretation. She has also dug up some great case studies to show how museums can dip their toe or dive right into this world. She makes some great statements in talking about opportunities and gathering input from your community, and how this can become an avenue for the museum to assist in addressing serious, long-standing societal issues.

Chapter three talks about researching historical exhibits. If you've never developed an exhibit, this chapter really walks you through the steps, from potential resources to organizing ideas to what kinds of questions to ask about the artifacts you're including. If you've never analyzed an artifact, it can be a very enlightening process. From this we roll into a broader chapter on developing exhibits as a whole. The author walks you through identifying the topic, defining the audience, determining the main message, developing the content, and then organizing the exhibit. Extra time is spent on the nitty gritty of exhibit label writing and installing the exhibit. One of my favourite pages in this chapter is on exhibit materials. We get questions about this regularly - what is safe to use and where you can buy it. A list like this can be especially helpful when you have some local volunteers who want to build stuff for you and need some guidance. My other favourite page in this chapter is when the author wraps it up all by advising readers to remember these 5 guidelines:
1. Exhibits are a medium for communication with special characteristics.
2. Every exhibit tells a story, but just one. Don't overdo it. There will be other exhibits to tell other stories.
3. Be green. Reduce, reuse, recycle. You don't have to break the bank when constructing a new exhibit.
4. Be sure to provide adequate protection of artifacts.
5. Make sure the exhibit is both fun and informative. Never sacrifice one for the other.
(I paraphrased here. Each point goes into more detail in the book).

The final chapter is on the nuts and bolts of program management. There's a lot of talk about logistics and sourcing supplies and resources, marketing...basically this goes over all the pieces of the plan. And as we've seen elsewhere in this book series, the question of assessments is raised. You've got to evaluate your programs - how many people are coming, did they learn what you hoped they would learn, did the venue work the way it was supposed to logistically, how would you change things if you did it again, etc etc. I think at this point we can all just say that the moral of the story is regularly evaluating our work. Maybe it's a casual assessment and maybe it's really formal, but we've got to stop and ask questions instead of just working away with our heads down. To bring this point home, the author wraps up this chapter (and therefore also the book) with a program management checklist. It's general enough that you should be able to see any program within the list, but specific enough to help you tighten up your planning, execution, and assessment tasks.

Other posts in this series:
Book 1: Leadership, Mission and Governance
Book 2: Financial Resource Development and Management
Book 3: Organizational Management
Book 4: Reaching and Responding to the Audience
Book 6: Stewardship: Collections and Historic Preservation

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