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.
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.
On Tuesday 19th of April I travelled to Indianapolis to visit the Museum of Art.
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?
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.