Monday, September 23, 2013

Historic House Museums: It’s about emotional stories, presentation.

The culmination of our work with the students this summer was an open house, where we asked the students to share the stories of the Hempsted Houses with the public in any manner they liked. 

Well, we did give them some parameters.  To prevent utter chaos, we broke the students up into small groups, and each group had responsibility for a single room.  We also did not allow them to make any permanent changes to the room, though we did allow them to handle most objects, sit on most of the seating furniture, and if they desired, invite the public to touch as well.  Our basic rule was that the room had to be returned to its original condition at the end of the event.

Other than that, the students were given complete freedom to do what they wanted.

First up, how they told the stories they shared.  I’ll be blunt.  The idea of a guided tour never came up, which is not a surprise given how, throughout the summer, the students made it absolutely clear that they did not like guided tours (or, in their words, “lectures”).  Additionally, none of the students at the open house even mentioned the idea of using technology in their interpretation

Instead, most of the students did what I would call a mixture of first-person interpretation and museum theatre.  That is, if you as a visitor walked in the room, they had a fairly set “skit” they wanted to share with you that gave you a strong sense of the story, like in museum theatre.  But they did not view the audience as a passive observer but instead as an active participant, turning to the visitor to ask questions, tell them things directly, or even asking them if they wanted to do something (such as butter making).  In this way, the students also served as first-person interpreters, going back and forth unconsciously between moving the story along and engaging directly with visitors.  It was pretty astounding to watch them do it so easily, as it should have been a difficult thing to accomplish.  

 Here, a student presents in “first-person” mode, interacting with visitors.

By recreating specific individuals from the Hempsted and Jackson families, and giving those individuals things to say and do, the stories naturally rolled out of the students.  In particular, most of the students focused on the story of Joshua Hempsted and Adam Jackson, and the nuances of early 18th-century slavery in Connecticut, though one group instead decided to depict a schoolroom from the 1830s, when the family opened what is likely one of the very earliest desegregated schools in the country in the house. 

What was most remarkable of all, however, wasn’t so much their methods of telling stories, or even the stories themselves, but the emotions of it all.  That is, these students brought a high level of emotion to their presentation by squabbling amongst each other, singing lullabies to an infant (OK, a doll), expressing sadness, delight, loneliness, or even horror.  They laughed, teared up, yelled, rebuked, and comforted.  And visitors responded. 

Students presenting in “museum theatre” mode, but note at the very beginning and end the anger expressed towards the (unseen) slave, flipping quickly to a beautiful lullaby in the middle.

In post-visit interviews of adult visitors who were not related to the students, time and time again I was told how the palpable emotions of the students affected visitors, and engaged them much more deeply in the stories of the house.  The emotions proved to be an amazing catalyst for connecting with the stories, and for vividly remembering the experience even several weeks afterwards.  The day after the open house, I put it my own way to James Chung (also of Reach Advisors), when I said “I think the house was . . . happy.  It certainly has not been as alive as it was last night since probably the 19th century, the last time children lived in the house.” 

Which brings us to a rather big conclusion.  Over the past several decades, the presentation of historic house museums has been rather . . . sterile.  How many times have you walked through a historic house museum and felt that you could have given that tour, despite knowing little to nothing about the people who lived in the house?  We have been hugely successful at stripping these idiosyncratic, passionate, complicated places of all personality.  Instead, we need to bring the messiness of emotions and the human condition back into these houses and make them, once again, homes, if they are going to be relevant to visitors today.

Over the next couple of posts I will discuss in more detail the overall themes we found in our work with the students.  You can count on my returning to this big conclusion to pick it apart a bit more. 

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.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Art Museum: A Visit to RISD

For the last museum field trip for the students, we chose the RISD Museum – our only visit to an art museum.  24 kids and 4 adults arrived for a day of looking at art.

The students arrived at the Museum after a week of summer rain – and they were pumped up.  We were self guided, so no staff came out to give us an introduction to the Museum. That was fine with me as, after all, the students had rated the brief introductions at other museum experiences extremely low. In hindsight, this was an error on our part.

The RISD Museum is a very different environment that the previous museums we had gone to. There are 2000-year-old fragile objects open to the air within. Guards roam the galleries kindly asking visitors to keep a reasonable distance from the artifact, don’t run, and be quite. OK this last one has always bothered me. The theory here is that you will disturb other visitors, but since so many labels in art museums often lack even basic context, how exactly are visitors supposed to learn within these walls without talking? If art is directly connected to emotion, why are we asked to be so dispassionate?  I must admit that some of the kids broke all of these rules. All of the students shot through the galleries in just short of a run – the guards’ radios crackled for our entire visit.

Finally we got to a show of current artwork – “Locally Made.” Here was artwork that was visually compelling, but not easily understood.  Many of the students stopped to try and figure out what these might be about. “It’s like ‘Where The Wild Things Are,’ but there’s a dead guy next to him,” one of the students remarked while looking at a canvas. The description was apt. The friendly and relaxed guard engaged the students while explaining why they should not touch the art in a very respectful way. 

The group came back together for lunch, and we decided to re-group. What could we do with the kids that would interest them? The program for the day included this:

Micah Salkind curates The Re-sounding City from 7/23-7/28.

In “The Re-sounding City” six Providence DJs spin one-hour sets that speak to their experiences of life in The Creative Capital. Curators and DJs Micah Jackson will be on-site to talk and dance about the Assembly with audiences, asking them to contribute drawings and text indexing their impressions in archival leger, a document that will compliment audio recordings of the one-hour performances. — Micah Salkind

Perfect and very cool! We thought that the kids would find this both appealing and familiar. After lunch we marched over the Contemporary Art Gallery just as the program began. The music was not too loud, the space did not have fragile items in it, and the staff was friendly and excited. The students spent the next 30 minutes horsing around and chatting with each other. I asked the Writers Block staff what was up – did the kids have any connection to this music? The answer is no – they are too young. As teenagers their musical experience is often limited to today’s pop tunes. While friendly, the staff did not engage the students despite the program description.

So now what? How could we get these kids involved in this museum? How will we fill the 2 hours left before the bus comes back? I decided to try my own role as tour guide. “Did everyone see the mummy? How old do you think this is?” (Guesses ranged from 200 to 20,000 years.)  My guided tour could not compete with the kids next to them. These students had now spent over 5 weeks with each other and were much more interested in just hanging out with their friends than listening to me –or anyone else for that matter.

Toward the end of the visit some of the students slowed down and engaged with the art. There was a piece of Herman Miller upholstery fabric designed by Alexander Girard and a video art installation that made the kids stop and question what was going on. The fabric pattern appeared to be cursive writing – but was not quite readable, and the video appeared to have a narrative which was just as allusive. They thought the fabric was cool, the video art – just confusing. I had to agree with them there. Who is video art for anyway?

At the end of the visit I wondered:

  • Should we have read them the riot act when we got there?
  • Could we have better prepared them for a successful visit?
  • Would the kids that had never been to an art museum before be able to have a better experience next time at an art museum, now that they understand a little more what is expected of them as visitors?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know that for most students this museum clearly communicated to most of these kids – ‘we are not the place for you’ despite institutional efforts to address a wider audience. If the Hempstead house is to be successful reaching much larger audiences, we must identify when, where and how our historic house inadvertently sends the same message.

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.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Student Exhibit Prototypes

If you could make any kind of exhibit for the Hempsted house what would it be?

Got an idea?  Great!

You need to make it in the next three hours. Here is some foam core, markers, string, paper, and other stuff let’s see what you can do.

That was the charge we gave the Writers Block students at an exhibit prototype session we developed for them earlier this summer. At that point, they had spent time in different kinds of museums and they were very familiar with the content of the Hempsted House. What would they come up with?  

I have done this workshop with museum professionals as a way to get them to quickly think through some of the implications for creating more visitor focused exhibits, using family learning criteria such as PISEC and prototyping ideas. After making a foam core exhibit, groups typically present to each other, find out what works and what doesn’t, and make changes to their exhibit.

My goals for the students were very different. I want to see what kinds of materials they would want to interact with and to hear what content interested them the most.

Here are some clips of the students describing their exhibits:

The students created a variety of prototype exhibits:
  • Two board games
  • Two model houses
  • A comic book
  • A newspaper about ghost sightings
  • A display of some of the pages of the Hempsted diary
  • A poster/display that asked visitors to help determine if the house was a stop on the Underground Railway

The content that some of the students focused on were the questions or mysteries. The students did tie Adam Jackson and Joshua Hempsted together-even as spirits from the afterworld. The two house models were seen as guides to the house for the students that created them.

What was most interesting to me is how the student work differed from how adults have taken on this challenge in past workshops. When I ask adults to do this activity, they invariable want to add a computer screen. I did let the students know that this was an option, but none of the students’ exhibits included technology.  

Additionally, the students’ content was not linear while adults often try and tell a story or control the user experience – first you do this then that. Even the newspaper exhibit about ghosts was designed to be accessed randomly.

The students were also interested in unresolved questions and creepy places. Neat and clean both physically and intellectually is just boring for them, and, maybe, lacks authenticity. I think they have a point.

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.