International Spy Museum

DC Day 11

Today was our last day visiting museums, and I must say it was disappointing. We visited the International Spy Museum, and I found myself struggling to find stories in the exhibits. The museum admits to the faults of the museum: lack of stories in the exhibit, confusing areas, and crowding, which is why the museum is moving to a new location with more space. The museum staff presented what they are going to do differently in the new museum to address the challenges that led to today’s dissatisfying visit.

I would have liked to learn more about the history of espionage and the stories of real spies. The top floor exhibit has a lot of objects, but the object labels are short, and the exhibit panels are small. I found it difficult to learn new information about spy history, and had to fall back on my own knowledge. The bottom level has a large exhibit about James Bond, and I thought this exhibit was unnecessary and my least favorite part of the museum. I thought the museum should have included more stories about real spies, and not an entire exhibit devoted to a fictional movie character.

Example of main panel in top floor exhibit

On a more positive note, the museum recognizes these struggles, and has plans to revamp the exhibits, tell stories, add more interactives, and make the museum more child-friendly. Since the museum opened, the intelligence community has evolved, so contemporary issues will now be addressed, since the current museum does not discuss the current climate in intelligence. The museum has invested time in learning from and communicating with visitors about what works in the museum, what does not work, and what visitors want to see in the museum. I look forward to visiting the new museum when it opens because it sounds like it will be the museum I was expecting to see today.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

DC Day 10

We visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) today and toured the special exhibition, Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration and Complicity in the Holocaust.

Introductory panel for exhibit

Generally, people think of the Holocaust in black and white terms with three main parts: victim, perpetrator, and bystander, but USHMM digs deeper into the complicated story of the Holocaust. The Holocaust was not black and white, there are many gray areas, and these gray areas contain the complexity. The special exhibition we toured focuses on the individual choices that people made during the Holocaust, and the fact that the neighbors of Jewish people either betrayed their neighbors or not. The exhibit focuses on the individual choices people made, and that people were not forced to choose the actions they made. Our guide emphasized the fact that the choices these people made were one moment in time, and their one choice does not necessarily characterize them as good or bad.


The Holocaust is a difficult story to tell for many reasons. The USHMM has an approach to the story that is opposite of most museums, the museum does not want to put visitors in other people’s shoes. This is striking because most museums want visitors to be transported into another person’s story, but telling the story of the Holocaust is unique in that the museum does not want to compare people’s pain and suffering. The USHMM wants to tell the why, how, and what related to the Holocaust, and the museum has found other techniques to give the visitor that personal connection. We did not have the opportunity to see the permanent exhibit, but I have heard that the display of the objects and the tour experience is how the emotional and personal connections are made. Another point made when talking to staff is that visitors should leave with questions. If visitors do not have questions, then the museum failed in its mission to “inspire citizens and leaders worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity” (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum). The Holocaust is recent history and new information and archival material is still being released, and there is still more to learn about the atrocity that was the Holocaust.



United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. (n.d.). About the Museum. Retrieved March 29, 2017, from

National Gallery of Art, National Museum of American History

DC Day 5

Accessibility in museums was the focus of today’s discussions. We visited the National Museum of American History and the National Gallery of Art. The National Gallery of Art visit was not focused on accessibility, but it was discussed a small amount. It is interesting to learn about accessibility in cultural institutions because it is not something I personally have to think about. The museum field is moving towards accessibility for everyone by moving past the minimum standards required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Accessibility is more than ramps and physical inclusion; it also involves intellectual and communication inclusion.

The Smithsonian Institution has an Accessibility Office with a very small staff who works with units at each of the Smithsonian museums on accessibility. The Spark!Lab at the National Museum of American History has just forayed into intentional accessibility for visitors with intellectual disabilities. Spark!Lab is a hands-on space for the invention process activities for 6-12 year old children. The motto of Spark!Lab is “Everyone is inventive.” The staff wanted to ensure that the term “everyone” actually means “everyone,” and that the space is inclusive for visitors with disabilities. The staff worked with the Accessibility Office to create resources for families with children with disabilities, which are made available both onsite and online. This discussion was very eye-opening for me because I have never worked with visitors who have disabilities. I can make connections about the discussion with the museum I work at and the areas that could be improved at my museum.  I can take what I learned from today’s discussion and take those ideas back to my museum.

Spark!Lab activity with motto
Spark!Lab activity











The National Art Gallery is the typical art museum where the space is physically accessible, but other aspects of accessibility could be improved. The artwork has tombstone labels with little description. Accessibility can be increased with programs and communication tools. Increasing accessibility and working with the community is an important for task for museums today.