Tag: museum

What can I learn about Museum Engagement from Harvard Yard and Michelle Obama?

What can I learn about Museum Engagement from Harvard Yard and Michelle Obama?

This week I returned to Boston after two months in my native Australia. I was happy that the weather is still very pleasant and that my Halloween weekend involved apple picking rather than the wintery mix of last year. Fortunately, the weather is also still beautiful enough to spend the afternoon reading a good book on the lawns of the Boston Common or Harvard Yard.

Each time I pass through Harvard Yard, I ponder my life journey and Michelle Obama’s speech at the opening of the Whitney Museum earlier this year. In short, Obama discussed the need to make public places like museums and the White House welcoming to all, and quash thoughts that certain people don’t belong there. Whilst Harvard Yard is part of a private university, it is very much a public space; it receives 45,000 tourists each year on the official Harvard tour alone. As a non-Harvard student or employee, I feel welcome and comfortable in the space, which is now one of my favourite hangouts. What I ponder is how I came to be so contented in the Yard and how it can be used in my work as a museum educator.

I grew up in a regional Australian community where tertiary education was undervalued, city living was seen as crossing the floor, and engaging with an arts and culture was seen as pretentious. I have spent much time contemplating this divide and have concluded it is complex beyond the time it takes to have my morning coffee or an evening glass of wine. My family were low to middle income earners and, at times, growing up, finances were tough. We didn’t visit museums, go to the theatre or holiday often and I was known as the “reader” in my family.

Over the last fifteen years, I have moved to the city, acquired a tertiary education, travelled extensively and begun a career in Museum Education. I have not read as much as I would have liked. Last year, I moved to Boston. The first time I sat in Harvard Yard, enjoying my lunch, reading a book and curling my toes around the grass, I felt an immense sense of pride. I had built a fulfilling and stimulating life against the social discourse of my upbringing.

Obviously, in 2015, this is easier than it would have been one hundred years ago as a woman, or in the absence of adversity, discrimination and stereotyping based on my religion, sexual preference, ethnicity or disability, yet for me it was still a grand achievement.

Furthermore, my siblings would not feel comfortable in the Yard. They would be the people Michelle Obama referred to who would say “that’s not a place for me”. Whilst part of this is self-imposed, there must also be external factors that incite such beliefs. Whilst I don’t yet have the answer, I continue to reflect upon the last fifteen years to determine how I overcame such a mentality. Better still, in my work as a museum educator, how can my own experience help to break down barriers and improve engagement, interest and accessibility for regional and low socio economic communities.

In the meantime, I’m taking my book to Harvard Yard to enjoy the last of the sun and warm weather.

Museums can tell so many stories: My experience at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Museums can tell so many stories: My experience at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

There are many contentions surrounding museum collections. High profile repatriation and provenance cases such as the Parthenon marbles are frequently discussed both within the sector and in the media. The issues are complex and they continue to reappear as there is no right or wrong answer or a one size fits all fix. Fortunately, some cases are clear cut when determining what is right and wrong such as souveniring from an historic site or a key landmark.

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the theft of thirteen artworks from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston; one of the great modern mysteries of the museum world. More information is available on the museum’s website. More recently, they have added a Google Art Project virtual tour of the stolen works. If you have not visited the museum, you should check it out.

Taken from Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Facebook page.

When I visited the museum for the first time last year, both as a visitor and museum programmer, I was amazed and astonished by the powerful account of the thefts as told by the exhibits. The same impact cannot be found in any book, podcast or in the virtual tour. This is one of those museum experiences that cannot be replaced by technology and innovation.

Despite anticipating the empty frames from the moment I arrived, I overlooked the small painting missing from the Blue Room on the first floor. It was not until the Short Gallery, on the second floor, almost half way through the museum that I noticed a gap and a brief label explaining the loss. To someone whose art knowledge is somewhat lacking, it blatantly demonstrated the complexity and malice of the theft. The thieves had largely ignored the exquisite pottery, furniture and paintings of the first floor in search of these small Duget drawings in a cabinet. They knew the collection, the museum layout and the value of the pieces. Likewise, they had specifically taken very valuable works by Vermeer and Rembrandt in the nearby Dutch Gallery. In this room, the pristine condition of each of the preceding rooms only exaggerated the impact of the large, empty frames.

Image from Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Facebook page

I have always been led to believe that the empty frames were so left out of respect for Gardner’s request “that the permanent collection not be significantly changed”. However, the museum claims that they have been “left not as a stipulation of Gardner’s will, but as a symbol of hope, awaiting their paintings’ return.” Either way, the decision to leave them there was not a programming one, yet the impact on the visitor’s experience and understanding of the theft is great. As an historian and an advocate for interdisciplinary experiences in museum programming, the history the museum from its inception to today, including, of course, the theft, is as important as understanding the works themselves.

Anyone with information about the stolen artworks and/or the investigation should contact Anthony Amore, Director of Security at the Gardner Museum, at 617 278 5114 or theft@gardnermuseum.org.  http://www.gardnermuseum.org/resources/theft 

What is an Engaging Learning Experience?

This week Edutopia reposted an article about student engagement by Heather Wolpert-Gawron. Heather asked 220 of her eighth grader “What Engages Students?” and uncovered ten common themes. Whilst they are relevant to the eighth grade classroom, they are also applicable to museum visitor engagement and many of the ideas are supported by museum specific research. Below I’ve elaborated on Heather’s students’ ten common themes in the context of the museum learning experiences.

1. Working with their peers

Students claimed that “teens find it most interesting and exciting when there is a little bit of talking involved. Discussions…allow students to participate…” 

The desire for a peer based, social experience in a museum context extends well beyond the teen market. The after hours museum bar model, heavily adopted in recent years, is targeted primarily at young adults. Likewise, research, such as that done at the Whitney Museum of American Art, shows that adults have a desire for social elements to be included in their museum experience including;

places to sit so people can relax and talk about what they’ve seen; add social media functions (e.g., sharing pictures on social media sites such as Facebook, pinging people nearby); incorporate question prompts that would encourage visitors to discuss topics with others in their group 


2. Working With Technology 

Students say, “I believe that when students participate in “learning by doing” it helps them focus more. Technology helps them to do that. Students will always be extremely excited when using technology.”

“We have entered a digital age of video, Facebook, Twitter, etc., and they [have] become more of a daily thing for teens and students. When we use tech, it engages me more and lets me understand the concept more clearly.”

The reality is, smart phones and social media are a daily thing for a much wider demographic than teens and students. In 2013, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 85% of Australians accessed the internet via their handset and just under half of Australians, 9.5 million, accessed Facebook on their phone. The incorporation of social media into a museum visit satisfies the visitors’ need for social experience, makes the experience more familiar and is often great marketing for the museum. Technology is also another means by which to develop a participatory, hands on experience or continue the experience online after the museum visit has concluded.

3. Connecting the real world to the work we do/project based learning 

Students want, “…relations between the text and the outside world. For example, I was in a history class last year…after every lesson, every essay, every assignment, he asked us, “How does this event relate to current times?” It brought me to a greater thinking, a kind of thinking where I can relate the past to the present and how closely they are bonded together.”

Students claimed that “If you relate the topic to the students’ lives, then it makes the concept easier to grasp.”

“To be able to understand and connect with the moment is what will make students three times more enthusiastic about learning beyond the black and white of the Times New Roman text.”

“Also something challenging and not easy, something to test your strengths as a student and stimulate your brain, so it becomes easier to deal with similar problems when you are grown up and have a job.”

All kinds of museums are well placed to contextualise current issues, events or anniversaries. Collections tell the narratives of the community they represent through their owners, use and acquisition as well as how they influenced the world today. Establishing a connection with the audience through empathy, place or common experience can invoke interest in any topic from history to science to art, and everything in between. A desire for more real world experiences supports the interdisciplinary approach of many museums.

4. Clearly love what you do

Students say, “teachers should speak to us like they’re really passionate about teaching.”

“”I also believe that enthusiasm in the classroom really makes a student engaged in classroom discussions. I also believe that excitement and enthusiasm is contagious.”

I am a self proclaimed history, education and museum nerd. I am excited, infuriated and intrigued by topical articles that pop up in my social media feeds, in the news or on my desk. For the last five years, I have worked in the education department of a history museum and I like to think that the enthusiasm for my work, shown by the teachers and students, is in part due to the passion, knowledge and willingness I project. A museum that takes pride in its work through its exhibitions, its programming and its customer service can only serve to improve any visitors’ experience. We have all experience bad customer service at a restaurant or a shop and through twice about returning.

5. Get me out of my seat!

“When a student is active they learn in a deeper way than sitting. For example, in my history class, we had a debate on whether SOPA and PIPA were good ideas. My teacher had us stand on either ends of the room to state whether we agree or disagree with the proposition. By doing this, I was able to listen to what all my classmates had to say.”

Body language is a key indicator of visitor engagement. Visitors slumped on couches at the end of the exhibition waiting for the rest of their group or slouched in front of an artwork are familiar sites to any museumgoer. As the students surveyed suggest, it’s much easier to fall asleep or tune out when you are seated at a desk for a long period of time and are part of a passive experience; and it is exacerbated by heat, darkness and other factors. Whilst museum visitors aren’t typically seated, participatory practices are shown to increase behaviours such as walking around to observe all sides of an object, close up viewing, group discussion and longer visit times. (Spires, 1989 and http://mw2013.museumsandtheweb.com/paper/lessons-learned-evaluating-the-whitneys-multimedia-guide/ )

Abbott Classroom Seaforth PS
The Australian Prime Minister talking to students at a primary school today. Are all of the students engaged by this passive experience?

6. Bring in visuals 

“I like to see pictures because it makes my understanding on a topic clearer.”

“I am interested when there are lots of visuals to go with the lesson. Power Points are often nice, but they get boring… Pictures and cartoons usually are the best way to get attention.”

Psychologist Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences has been around for a long time now and is well referenced in education. As Gardner says, the implication for education is that ideas should be taught in multiple ways and with consideration of how each individual student learns best based on their intelligence/s (eg. visual, verbal, musical etc.). The students’ comments support this idea by saying they prefer pluralization and diversity. Intelligences and preferred learning styles rarely change with age meaning that how people learn should be a key consideration in planning exhibitions and programs, and that as many learning styles and intelligences as possible should be accommodated.

7. Student Choice

“I think having freedom in assignments, project directions, and more choices would engage students…More variety = more space for creativity.”

“Giving students choices helps us use our strengths and gives us freedom to make a project the way we want it to. When we do something we like, we’re more focused and enjoy school more.”

“Another way is to make the curriculum flexible for students who are more/less advanced. There could be a list of project choices and student can pick from that according to their level.”

Vygotsky advocates for scaffolded or layer learning. Museums have an eclectic range of visitors traversing many demographics. Exhibition development and programming should consider scaffolding to accommodate, for example, both the academic audience who is well versed in the subject knowledge, and tourists with very little background knowledge or interest. Giving all visitors choice allows them to focus on their areas of interest and work within the parameters of their existing knowledge. My partner and I both enjoy 18th century landscape and cityscape paintings so usually spend the most time in this gallery. Similarly, I studied Ancient Roman history as part of my Bachelor of Arts and on a recent visit to the Museum of Fine Arts spent a disproportionate amount of time in the Greek and Roman galleries, swooning over mosaics and pots.

8. Understand your clients 

“If the teacher shows us that they are confident in our abilities and has a welcoming and well-spirited personality towards us, we feel more capable of doing the things we couldn’t do…What I’m trying to say is students are more engaged when they feel they are in a “partnership” with their teacher.”

“Personally, I think that students don’t really like to be treated as ‘students.’…They need to ask for our input on how the students feel about a project, a test, etc…See from our point of view and embrace it.”

“…everyone should feel comfortable so that they are encouraged to raise their hands to ask questions or ask for help.”

“Teachers should know that within every class they teach, the students are all different.”

Research indicates that young adults often find museums unapproachable and sterile, and dislike a museum experience where knowledge is dictated. Nina Simon in The Participatory Museum talks of participation including visitors as respected collaborators. This does not mean handing over the museum to the visitor and disregarding the qualifications and experience of the staff. Instead, museums become facilitators of discussions, learning and experiences, within the parameters set and hopefully in a way that achieves the museum’s desired outcome. Part of this does involving at least consultation with visitors about their expectations and to make them feel like valued members of the museum community.

9.Mix it Up!

“I don’t like doing only one constant activity…a variety will keep me engaged in the topic. It’s not just for work, but also for other things such as food. Eating the same foods constantly makes you not want to eat!”

“Fun experiments in science class…acting out little skits in history…if students are going to remember something, they need visuals, some auditory lessons, and some emotions.”

“Also, you can’t go wrong with some comedy. Everyone loves a laugh…another thing that engages me would be class or group games. In Language Arts I’ve played a game of “dodge ball. We throw words at each other, one at a time. If they could get the definition, the person who threw the word would be out…Students remember the ones they got wrong, and of course, the ones they already knew.”

Mixing up the museum experience may be daunting for the museums staff, but is what people come to expect. The eighth graders surveyed for the Edutopia article will be disengaged museum visitors within five years. Whilst they will grown up, mature and evolve their desire to have fun, diversity and laugh will not diminish. In order to engage them in the museum, their desire for choice and interdisciplinary experiences can not be ignored.

10. Be human

Don’t forget to have a little fun yourself.”

Museums are slowly opening up. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, now have some of their conservation labs behind glass in view of the public. The museum should not be a secret, if we humanise ourselves we can address some of the issues of approachability. I have worked in recent years primarily with communities in regional Australia. At first, as ‘city person’ I have faced adversity and hesitation from teachers, students and community groups. However when I reveal that I grew up in the country and reveal a little of myself, the walls come down.

As an educator, these principles are Education theory 101 but I hope to see learning theory spread more broadly through the museum sector as we are all in the business of learning and, hopefully, fun too!

Love & Sorrow at Melbourne Museum

Love & Sorrow at Melbourne Museum

Last week an article from the Guardian, written by Paul Daley, appeared in my Facebook feed. Motivated by the words; Anzac, nationalism and war, I clicked through. The article discusses the State Library of NSW’s recently digitised collection of First World War diaries, however Daley opens with a rather critical reflection of Australia’s interpretation of the events and impact of the Great War. Building on a similar belief, held by historian, Geoffrey Serle in the 1960s, labelled Anzackery, Daley believes that

“political leaders, officials, national institutions and journalists [continue to] perpetuate the absurd proposition that nationhood emerged not amid 60,000 years of continuous Indigenous settlement or even at federation, but with 8700 Australian deaths under a British flag at Gallipoli?”

As a history teacher and museum educator at a war memorial, I can only agree with Daley. In my experience the average Australian sees my work to be centred on Gallipoli and Anzac Day. Their perceptions of war are heavily influenced by film, games and pop culture, some even needing to be reminded that in a real war, you can not simply hit reset. Many see war service as a never ending combat role in which everyone fights to the death minimising the impact of 60,000 Australian deaths First World War equating to “only” 20% of those who enlisted. Worse still, are those who are disappointed, and feel somewhat ‘unAustralian’ that their relative survived, didn’t serve at Gallipoli or did not serve in a combat role. My work strives to show that Gallipoli was an eight month campaign of a war that lasted more than fifty months. I acknowledge the crucial and dangerous jobs of those in supporting roles and I place emphasis on the physical and psychological wounds, some permanent, that lasted long after the armistice was signed and the gunfire ceased on 11 November 1918.

With Daley’s article fresh in my mind and my personal experiences and frustrations continuing to simmer, I went to the Melbourne Museum on New Year’s Day to see their exhibition WWILove and Sorrow. Besides the free entry I received on the day due to a computer glitch, here are some of the things I want to write home about.


Its Position in the Museum. 

One would expect to find a First World War exhibition in the history section of a museum. In a decision, that I’m sure was widely, and perhaps contentiously, discussed, this exhibition is housed in the Mind and Body science galleries, as it focuses primarily on the “impact of war on Australian families”.

Anyone who has worked with me will know that the impact of war on service people, their families and local communities is of particular interest to me. Marina Larsson, who I was please to see assisted with this exhibition, writes much about this in her book Shattered Anzacs, which is a regular ‘go to’ book for me.

Learning Principles and Empathy

Inquiry Based Learning is one of my preferred approaches to teaching and learning. In simple terms, it is the posing of questions to encourage participation, investigation and reflection which, in turn, develops understanding, enhances skills and allows a personalised, relatable connection with the topic, idea or object. This exhibition draws heavily of this approach with an apparent view to create understanding and empathy. Rather than starting the label with the object description, as is traditional, it merely poses a question.

Could you spend 43 years in this bed?

An Inquiry Based Learning approach allows the visitor to be an active museum participant rather than a passive viewer. It encourages skills of analysis and critique rather than an unequivocal acceptance of the information provided. It also allows a multi demographical experience. For example, a small child might respond to the above question with “that would be boring”, “it would be hard to get around” or “I couldn’t play football anymore”. On the other hand, an adult might reflect upon their personal experience of looking after a wheelchair bound relative and the challenges of every day tasks such as showering as well as the psychological impacts on both carer and relative. Each have understood the impact of war on Australian families and empathised, within their own limitations, with the experience.

Whilst a great tool, understanding, connectedness and empathy can only occur if the question posed is relatable to the audience. The same task would not be effective if the object was unfamiliar such as a piece of obscure medical equipment or if the concept was unknown such as asking people who lived in central Australia to empathise with living on the coast. The questions selected by Melbourne Museum, whilst simple, have been well chosen. I have also included a favourite classroom example of creating relatable learning experiences which has been circulating around the internet.

How would you mow a lawn blind?
What was it like to travel in a horse-drawn ambulance?

A favourite relatable analogy that has travelled the internet in recent months.

Humanising Service People and Exploring the Wider Impact.

In 2010 I met the youngest daughter of First World War veterans Ernest and Clarice Lawrence. Almost one hundred years after the war, she spoke of her father’s shell shock and premature death, her limited memory of him and about growing up in a war affected home. The effects of the First World War, and indeed any war, are longterm and wide reaching, lasting long after the battlefields fall silent. However these stories are often never told.

This exhibition strays from a traditional museum hang, to reimagine an early 20th century fireplace mantel, complete with bronze frames and photos of all members of the family at varying times in their life. The family theme continues as eight individual narratives are followed through to the post war period, or in the instance of those who did not return, their family members. This approach, intentional or otherwise, provides a more accurate gender reflection of the population at the time. The narrative of mother, Eliza Amery, most resonated with me as both the most tragic story, and the one to be most likely to be lost in an Anzackery narrative.


Whilst some may label it intrusive, confronting or inappropriate, I was pleasantly surprised by the frank but tactful approach to these narratives including the mention of suicide. I also appreciated the graphic visuals throughout the exhibition including images of amputees and those with facial disfiguration. In my opinion, censoring stories and images of war and its impacts shows a grave injustice and disrespect to those who suffered. Museum CEO, David Greene and exhibition curator, Deborah Tout Smith appear to share my sentiment describing the exhibition as emotional, challenging, painful and confronting but offer no apologies for their approach.

Disfigured and wounded faces.

My absolute favourite part of the exhibition is the suburban street audio visual interactive. Visitors can tap on a house in the street and see who enlisted from that address, an overview of their service and in some cases other close relatives, not living at that address, who also enlisted. As well as showing how many of the individual stories throughout the exhibition are intertwined, it demonstrates to visitors the intensity of enlistment and the war’s wide reaching impact on a small community which can then be applied to their street, suburb or town. This is somewhat like an idea I had a couple of years ago to place the extensive list on names on the honour roll at the Brunswick Town Hall onto a map. An idea that fell by the wayside due to its sheer intensity; both time consuming and emotionally draining.

Street interactive.

My experience at Love and Sorrow was very much issues based, however, the exhibition is object rich with over 300 items on display in a rather small space. Each of the individual narratives include a number of items both from the museum’s collection and on loan. Many of these are unassuming and as a single item would bear little significance or emotional impact. Yet, when displayed together, and thoughtfully curated with additional narrative and modern audio visual contributions of descendants, each of the individual stories is captivating, holistic and informative.

If you don’t talk about the battles, aren’t you being and exclusionary as all of the people you are criticizing? 

Naturally, the greatest understanding of a wartime experience comes from an intricate study of the topic. Indeed, there are more resources available than one could utilise in a lifetime of research. In reality, most people do not have a keen interest in military history, nor do curators and museums have an infinite amount of space, time and money to invest in educating the public on the topic.  The average Australian learns much of their military history from brief units studied at school, a short museum visit or as interest sparks around Anzac Day each year. Whilst an understanding of the introduction of gas warfare or machine guns is required to discuss the wounds they inflict, it is preferable that snapshot learning emphaises the individual approach and the maimed, scarred and broken men and women of Love and Sorrow.

To put it into perspective, more than 60,000 Australians were killed in the First World War and 63 received a Victoria Cross. Whilst the story of Albert Jacka’s Victoria Cross at Gallipoli is a key part of the First World War his successes in the trenches were an exception rather than the norm. Furthermore, little else is known about Jacka, before, during and after the war, removing his human status. Jacka was not renowned for possessing the Anzac qualities with which he is associated today; his ability to work in a team environment was questionable. His invincible image is quashed once one reads the details of his time at Caulfield Military Hospital where  he died a slow, painful and very public death as a result of his war wounds. Whilst successes should be acknowledged, it should not be at the expense of the whole story. The approach of Love and Sorrow is one I would like to see more over the next five years so that the average Australian’s perceptions of First World War, reflects the experience of a wider cross section of Australians and that everyone can be proud of their family member’s contribution to the war effort.

Melbourne Museum will host an Imperial War Museum exhibition focused more heavily on service, and sadly, Gallipoli. This will allow them to provides even greater context for their Love and Sorrow exhibition and I trust they will encourage visitors to experience both exhibitions as a complement to each other.

Website Links:





Museums as Facilitators of Change

Today this popped up in my Facebook feed. http://blogs.aaslh.org/they-took-them-to-a-museum/ Written by Bethany Hawkins from the American Association for State and Local History, it discusses a museum experience in Rwanda learning about the 1994 genocide.

It reminded me a lot of the work I do everyday in teaching people about the experiences of the First World War and my visit to the Killing Fields in Cambodia in 2012. Bethany says

“Most people will never pick up a 300-page history book to read about the story of the over one million people killed in the Rwandan genocide and if they did, they would probably not feel a personal connection.” 

This was exactly my experience in Cambodia.

I have both studied and taught the Vietnam War and its flow on effects into Cambodia and Laos. I have a keen interest in social and personal history and have read much about the impact of the Khmer Rouge on everyday society, people and families. Yet the events of the 1970s were only truly understandable once I visited the Killing Fields in 2012 and saw victim’s clothes intertwined in the roots of the trees, pieces of broken bones jutting out of the dirt, and the tower housing hundreds of visible skulls.

Whilst museums can not truly replicate the experiences of war or genocide, nor should they want to, they can be valuable tools in enhancing empathy for victims and sufferers. Bethany’s friend’s experience in Rwanda itself is only the beginning of the role museums can play in increasing awareness and understanding, and fighting ignorance. Exhibitions, like the one in Rwanda, can be effective not only in their native country but around the world. For example, Australia, as a nation, has a very negative attitude toward immigration and refugees, many of which come from war torn countries. If museums are able to complement political fear mongering, stereotyping and brief combat based news broadcasts with narratives and experiences of everyday people, it can go a long way towards developing an empathetic, understanding and informed global community.


This article is also relevant http://www.sitesofconscience.org/2012/11/small-museums-big-impact/