Saturday, July 27, 2013

Teen Visitors, Objects, and Stories

It is about stories. 

Having now spent time with the students (ages 11 to 16) this summer, and taken them on three museum field trips, that is my big conclusion.

Not too surprising, is it?

Except that it really isn’t that straightforward, and stories that are compelling to the students seem to be in short supply.

Over the past two weeks we have taken the students on two additional museum field trips:  the New Bedford Whaling Museum and the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park (both New Bedford, MA); and Mystic Seaport (Mystic, CT).  (Our first trip was to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, which Robert blogged about.) 

Here are some of my initial observations:

  •  Original objects are a fundamental base for museum experiences (except when they are not).  That is, the students do look at the objects on display as they walk through exhibition galleries.  The problem is that they walk through those galleries really quickly, and they largely rely on the objects themselves to tell the story.  An object has to be extremely eye-catching to warrant a second look and perhaps a reading of the label or accompanying text panel.  Since the story the objects are there to tell isn’t always self-evident, this means that most, if not all, of the intended content is lost on the students.  But there are also two twists I have noticed:

o   We provided digital cameras to the students, and encouraged them to take pictures of their visits so that they could include printouts in the journals they are keeping.  The majority of the photos taken are of each other or of the objects on display; many include both.  

Mystic Seaport; photo taken by participating student

o   Objects that provide what I am calling the “Ew Factor” do grab their attention and provoke strong reactions.  This includes things like a diorama of a deer being butchered in the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and preserved whale eyes and brains at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. 

  • The right staff can engage tweens and teens, and pull them into stories and provoke emotional reactions (and help them look at objects with new eyes).  We saw this in two different ways:

o   In New Bedford, the students interacted with a couple of first-person interpreters.  These interpreters did a good job handling a crowd of tweens and teens, and engaging them in the stories they had to share.  The students remembered these interactions, and some are planning to provide similar experiences to their guests at our upcoming open house.

"Strawberry Lady" at New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park; photo taken by participating student

o   At Mystic Seaport, a staff member, not in costume or in character, took a moment to tell the students about a small boat on display that, otherwise, they would have walked right by.  Turns out, this rather beaten-up boat was used by a number of Cubans to escape Cuba, and their tale was rather harrowing.  He pulled them into this story, engaged their emotions, evoked a sense of drama, and they looked at him, and the boat, enrapt and with widened, new eyes.  As Naomi wrote in her journal afterwards, “This story was so interesting I couldn’t stop listening.  I usually do when people give us lectures, but shh it’s a secret.”  For Naomi, and the others, this story was no lecture.

Cuban fishing boat at Mystic Seaport; photo taken by participating student

  • Use of technology was hit or miss . . . and largely miss.  A movie in a theatre can hold their interest, engage them in a story, and engender their empathy, as we saw at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum.  But while computer monitors and other video screens may catch their attention, they rarely hold their interest for more than a few seconds.

o   Unless you are talking about the technology they brought with them.  Many of the students used their phones extensively to do more than text, but to take pictures of their visits.  LOTS of pictures, which indicates an interest in the museum on a personal level (otherwise, why bother taking pictures and posting them?). 

  • The students did engage with interactive activities, but I did hear comments that some were too simple for them or clearly intended for younger children.  They wanted hands-on activities that were more age appropriate and substantive. 

  •  Finally, if creature comforts are not addressed, engagement and learning plummet.  I most clearly saw this in two ways:

o   Seating.  Whenever I saw a bench, there was a student sitting on it.  They take every opportunity to sit down, reminding us that being young doesn’t mean one is indefatigable.  Museum fatigue happens to all of us.  What kinds of content can we, therefore, provide at these benches?  And are there ever enough benches?

Very hot and tired students at Mystic Seaport; photo taken by author

o   Ambient temperature.  It was well into the 90s for our visit to Mystic Seaport, and many of the exhibits and activities take place outdoors there.  Despite that those exhibits and activities would likely have engaged them (costumed interpretation, hands-on activities, performances, and programs on music), most of them were ignored by the students, who actively sought out air conditioned spaces, regardless of content. 

Fundamentally, museums, especially history museums, are in the storytelling business.  Yet based on what we have observed the students doing, and not doing, on all three museum field trips thus far, the stories are getting lost because the mechanisms of telling the stories are not engaging them.  In terms of engaging these students, we have to rethink what we rely on, and what we need to pay attention to. 

We rely too much on:

  • objects to tell a story without really realizing that the story they tell may not be evident to visitors
  • text panels that are often ignored
  • what the students would deem “lectures” from adults that go on and on and on and on (e.g., guided tours)

From what I have seen thus far, perhaps we need to pay more attention to:

  •  how objects can more explicitly tell a story and spark deeper interest . . . without text
  •  skillful use of trained storytellers
  •  substantive hands-on activities that help make visitors (including our students) feel they are experiencing something much like what people of the past experienced
  • ensuring that the physical environment is so comfortable that it becomes an aid to engagement, not a barrier

This doesn’t mean that we are suggesting museum exhibitions should no longer have text panels, or that historic house museums should never have guided tours.  Instead, it is a deeper understanding that while those methods of interpretation work for some, they don’t work for many, and we have to be more flexible and nimble if we want to broaden our audiences and create more sustainable futures for our museums.

Next stop:  RISD Museum of Art!

We’d love to know what you think.  Share a comment with us!

Susie Wilkening is a Senior Consultant and Curator of Museum Audiences at Reach Advisors.  She is leading several phases of audience research for this project.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

25 Students Visit the Mashantucket Pequot Museum

The MashantucketPequot Museum, in Mashantucket, CT, was the first of four field trips with the students this summer.  Our field trip goals include:

  • Observing which exhibits the students use, for how long and what their experience looks like.
  • Asking the students to write in journals about their experiences while in the museum and addressing specific questions.
  •  Providing the students with examples of exhibits for them to adopt, push off of, or think about when they are asked to consider what we might do at the Hempsted House.
  •  Seeing how the students interact socially within the exhibits – for example when left without direction, do they go through as a group? A few at a time? Individually?
  • Ideally, identifying what characteristics of exhibits the students are drawn to

The students arrived after a long school bus ride. Entering the Museum, the students received a brief introduction from a Pequot Museum staff member. Many of the students had been to the Museum on school field trips. The introduction was short, well done, and included information directly relevant to the students’ project.  The staff member addressed the plight and behavior of enslaved Pequots after the Pequot War. Many Pequots enslaved on colonial manors walked away and joined other local Native American groups.

Four days later, when asked what their least favorite part of the Pequot Museum visit was, the students cited the staff introduction. I admit that the staff person had done this introduction at my request. I had hoped the students would see a connection and think about the differences between Adam Jackson’s enslavement and the Pequot enslavement at the same time period.  Instead, they perceived it as a lecture.

After the introduction, students could explore the Museum freely. At first we stayed together, but this quickly broke down as different groups of students found different exhibits more or less engaging.  Students got together in groups of two to five, in basically two age categories; 11 to 14 and 15 to 17. The students understood we were there for the day, and everyone took their time. 

Much of the Museum is taken up with exceptional life-sized dioramas of the ice age, a 6,000 year old hunt, nature of the region and a series of vignettes taking place in a Pequot village.  Off of these spaces there are a number of small theaters with rotating shows and smaller gallery. The Museum contains an introductory space with stories from today, a wonderful object theater that documents the tribe’s history from 1930 or so onward and a temporary show, “Ramp It Up! Skateboard Culture in Native America,” a show aimed squarely at our demographic.

Here is how the students interacted, and what they wrote about at the end of the day:

Ramp It Up!:
Only about half the students viewed this exhibit, but of those that did, a good number enjoyed the show, and even read the labels. The skateboard decks were behind glass, and one student reached behind and touched a few of them before the other students told him to stop. All agreed that there should be some you could touch. There was a long loop of video running – but without added information or a way to control the video the students quickly lost interest.

The Ice Age:
A 2 foot tall model of a glacier with a 4” bronze model of the Museum at the bottom quickly conveyed the thickness of ice that covered the area 11,000 years ago in the last ice age. They got it and liked it. Next to this was a computer interactive that some of the students tried and promptly gave up on. Its design made little sense to them – and they were not sure what the interactive was attempting to convey.
Two life sized models of mega fauna looked great and many of the students were drawn to the numerous animals throughout. They did not read labels, but did understand – these animals lived here a long time ago.

The Hunt:
This life sized diorama of a caribou hunt with multiple vignettes fascinated the students. The computer terminals here and the rail labels provided added information – but not the information the students were looking for in a way that they could access.

The Pequot Village:
The Village takes up a large part of the Museum. It incorporates about 30 life sized vignettes of Pequot village life. Few institutions could afford or would be willing to commit the needed space to an impressive installation like this. Interpretation for the Village relies on user operated audio guides. Visitors type in numbers, imbedded in the floor, into their audio guide and hear a piece about the scene in front of them. The students were having fun exploring the museum in small social groups up to this point. Listening to audio pieces often gets in the way of social interaction, so I thought that the students might not use this technology very much, maybe a few times here and there.  I was wrong. Almost all of the younger students listened to a large number of the audio pieces, though the older ones did not listen to as many.

The pieces themselves are very short and focused. After each one there is often a reference to added related topics that the user can access. One student decided that he had to hear every single one. This took a long time, but he was determined.

Off of the Village there are few galleries and shorter video presentations. Most of this was of little interest to the students, save one element. A Pequot language interactive gave students the ability to hear their name in the Pequot language as well as other words. This interactive came up a lot in post visit conversations.

The Witness – a 30 minute film:
This dramatization of events surrounding the Pequot War engaged all of the students, and many commented on how sad the film was.

What can we learn from the Writer Block students’ first museum visit? Here are my preliminary takeaways –

  • Choice - The students responded to choice and the ability to choose their own experience. Every time that the students could not exercise choice they lost interest and moved on. A few of students commented that they had a much better time exploring the Museum than their last visit; when they had received a guided tour with their school group.
  • Relevance – Just like the rest of us the students needed a way to prioritize what they should look at. In competing stories of tool making and family life, family life wins hands down because it is easily relatable.
  • Accessibility - Like choice, the ability to find information that they wanted to know determined the success of exhibits.

We will see if these observations hold for the other museum visits. The Mashantucket Pequot Museum has a lot of wonderful exhibits, but it does not have a lot of hands on interactives competing for attention. How would more hands on interactives have altered the students’ experience? 

Robert Kiihne of RK Exhibits will be participating in the teen audience research this summer and will draft the exhibitions component of the interpretive plan in the fall.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Our Summer with Teenagers

Take over two dozen teens (including a few tweens) and a very old, dark, and evocative historic house museum.  Put them together.  What will you get?

OK, we don’t really know yet.  But we are finding out!

This summer, Connecticut Landmarks has partnered with Writers Block InK to delve into complex issues regarding history, slavery, race, and the modern implications of all three on individuals, communities, and museums.  As part of an eight-week summer program, these youth are tackling these issues as they think about the Joshua Hempsted House and their own New London community.  

CTL staff, exhibitions designer Robert ,and I have been spending two days a week with the youth as they sort through the many complex stories of the Joshua Hempsted House and New London’s early history.  To help them consider how they would share these stories via a historic house museum, we have led or hosted workshops (e.g., exhibition design, museum theatre, a visit with Joshua Hempsted's diary - check out this video!), and have been taking them to other museums to learn more about what they like, or simply ignore, in museum settings.

The culmination of this summer’s work will be two-fold:

  • An open house the evening of Tuesday, July 30, where they will be presenting the stories of the property, and New London, by sharing the Joshua Hempsted House with community members and stakeholders.  Reach Advisors will be conducting follow-up interviews with some attendees to learn what they think about the stories chosen and the methods for telling the stories.
  • An original dramatic production on slavery, developed by the youth and their leaders, to be presented in mid-August.

We are having a fascinating time observing the youth, asking questions, and finding out their preferences.  Over the next few blog posts, we’ll be sharing more details about the museum visits and workshops, and give you a better sense of where the youth are heading for their open house.  

Susie Wilkening is a Senior Consultant and Curator of Museum Audiences at Reach Advisors.  She will be leading several phases of audience research for this project.

Photo:  Many of the youth at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.