Alone in the little ‘Big House’ (Wales)

I’m very keen on visitor participation, I’m happy about high visitor numbers and I think a busy museum is a vibrant museum.  But sometimes I just really love to be alone in a quiet empty museum.  I think the most special moments can happen when you’re alone with a museum.  It doesn’t mean the whole museum needs to be empty, just the space you’re in.  Especially when they’re historical sites.

When I was travelling in the UK I visited a National Trust site in Northern Wales with some friends.  It was ‘Tŷ Mawr’ or ‘Big House’ translated from Welsh.  This lovely historic site was nestled in an isolated part of the country side and manned by a keen and knowledgeable guide.  The site had an old magic to it, which the guide helped bring to life.

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Beamish (Durham, UK)


Beamish  is an open air museum near Newcastle-upon-Tyne in Northern England.  The museum covers a range of eras from 18th century farming to the turn of the 20th century mining.  It sits on a vast rural property with different sections/eras connected by a vintage bus and tram loop.  Luckily for me, the days I visited (the first week of May), the lovely spring sunshine bathed the museum in warmth.  This obviously added to my enjoyment of the outside spaces.  Like all outdoor museums, Beamish is at the mercy of the weather in this regard!

The museum is a lively and fun place, which also offers a comprehensive historical immersion.  The staff are a great highlight of the museum.  I met so many who eagerly and voluntarily spoke about their area of the museum.  Their enthusiasm and knowledge really added to the experience.

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On the 24th April I visited both the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I felt that this time I went mostly as a tourist. Sure I still focused on details the average visitor would not, but I was there on a Sunday with a NY City Pass (booklet to get into multiple venues for a lower price) and in ‘holiday mode’ myself. I was also slightly delirious with sleep deprivation, having not coped very well with the volume of the New York nightlife noise that reached my bedroom the previous night.

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Washington: The Smithsonians and LOC

In Washington I visited four of the Smithsonian museums – Air and Space, American History, American Indian and Natural History. I also visited the Library of Congress. Despite the dreary weather there were a lot of people spending the day visiting the Museums, many were families as it was around Easter time and schools’ Spring break. There was a real sense of a great family outing happening. Lots of the visitors seemed to be American, and many from the nearby area. I think partly because they were free, there was a sense of ownership and shared family learning that isn’t always present in Museums. The museums did little in the way of ‘selling’, rather they let the exhibitions speak for themselves.

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Indianapolis Museum of Art

On Tuesday 19th of April I travelled to Indianapolis to visit the Museum of Art.
Exterior of IMA
My main motivation for visiting this venue was their stong involvement in the using of digital technology to enhance the visitor experience and access to their collection. I met with their School’s Coordinator, Wendy, to discuss their Education Programs and the associated logistics. Wendy was very helpful and we found, as is often the case, that we share similar challenges in managing school groups: bookings, scheduling, group movement, unexpected arrivals, encouraging full participation in programs etc. From the Education Staff I’ve met at a range of institutions, these challenges seem quite universal. We all hope to give our school visitors the very best learning experience and look for ways to best share our expertise with teachers and students. I guess the ultimate question is: what is the best way to assist teachers to give their students the most powerful learning experience while on excursion to our museum? I have even had friends of mine, who know what I do for a job, not have any idea what sort of educational experience local institutions can offer. How do we capture these teachers?

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California Academy of Sciences – San Francisco

Over the next two and a half months I will be travelling throughout the US, UK and Europe. It is mostly a personal trip. Naturally I will be visiting a number of museums, galleries, libraries and other cultural sites and institutions. Some visits will be formal and I will meet with Education staff, others informal and I will visit as a ‘regular’ guest. Of course, when you work in a museum, visiting other museums is rarely the same as it is for other visitors. It often becomes an idea-gathering expedition, or an exercise in critical evaluation, and sometimes just general admiration of things like: the layout of exhibition panels, interactives, staff roles and contact… etc! As I visit various exhibitions I will be taking notes of my observations and thoughts, as a museum educator and also some notes as an impartial, if that’s possible, visitor.

Today I visited the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. It is an impressive institution with natural history exhibits, a planetarium, an aquarium and a living rainforest display. It has quite expensive entry fee of 34.95USD. While I’m not opposed to entry charges or financially supporting a good museum, from the perspective of a traveller on a very tight budget it could be a deterrent. It’s a tricky line to balance on – charging a rate that allows an institution to remain open, look after its collection and deliver a quality experience for visitors, balanced with the opportunity for as many people as possible the chance to experience and learn from the collection. Having said that, the museum was definitely very slick and had a good number of highly visible and informative staff who interacted well with visitors. So even from the external viewers perspective, and not taking into consideration the behind-the-scenes research, the high cost does translate to good value.

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