Hillwood Estate, National Zoo

DC Day 4

Today we visited two very different types of museums, the National Zoo and Hillwood Estate, but these two institutions have similarities. Exhibitions are either story-led or object-led or a combination of the two throughout an institution. The National Zoo has a combination of the two storytelling methods. Hillwood Estate uses the story-led method.

The National Zoo has the complex task of trying to educate visitors about conservation, animal care, and the environment when the animals are often the focus of the visitor’s interest. The animals are the object in this type of setting, and most of the exhibits are object-, or animal-led, but the Zoo is reinterpreting the information so that the exhibits are story-led. I think this is a new way of approaching exhibitions in zoos since many visitors do not have conservation at the forefront of their mind when visiting a zoo. On the other hand, conservation is an important and complex topic that should be discussed to educate visitors. A story-led design allows visitors to learn more about the animal and allows them to create a deeper connection to the animal.

Object-based label at the National Zoo
Object-based label at the National Zoo















Story-based label at the National Zoo

Hillwood Estate is the home of Marjorie Merriweather Post. Post was an avid collector who knew she wanted her house to become a museum. It is a house museum, and there are very few object labels in the house, which is a clue that the museum has a story-led approach. The text and audio guides are focused on Post as a person and collector and the spaces in the house. Object labels would be overwhelming and polluting in this setting because there are objects on nearly every wall and surface. The objects are displayed in their proper rooms where Post would have used them. The museum uses guided serendipity as an exhibition tool. Guided serendipity means that the visitor makes their own inferences and discoveries that are supported by the text and audio guides. This technique also supports the story-led approach.

Example of object case at Hillwood Estate without object labels

From what I have seen this week and what I have experienced professionally there appears to be a shift to the story-led method. Objects are still important and key to the story, but the object story fits into a larger overall story. Personally, this is conflicting because I am a collections person, so I focus on the individual object and its story more often than I do the larger narrative. I think a balance of the two storytelling methods will quiet my discomfort because a museum should have exhibitions that are diverse, yet still cohesive within the institution. People visit museums to see objects and learn about the stories associated with those objects.

National Portrait Gallery

DC Day 2

What do storytelling and object based learning have in common?

Objects are used to tell stories, and not only one story, but multiple stories. Museums cannot tell stories without objects because objects are the tangible things that make the story interesting and relatable. If people can actually see the object, they can connect with it based on their personal knowledge and background. Today, we learned about object based learning from Judy Landau. Object based learning is a method where a person looks at an object and is guided by a museum educator to describe what they see. After describing what they see questions may arise that dig deeper into the story. For example, there is a small coffee table in front of you. The table is brown, it appears to be made from three pieces of wood, and there is an open area beneath the top. Next, I wonder how the table was made, what is a table of this size used for, who made the table? These questions create a story related to the object. Object based learning must be learned, but the knowledge and skills needed to teach it are easily accessible. This method is based on knowing basic information about an object, having inquiry and critical thinking skills, and good communication (see Figure 1). Object based learning is a way to get people thinking about objects in a different way.

object based learning
Figure 1: Object based learning as discussed with Judy Landau

Storytelling in museums begin with one object or theme. Today, we visited the National Portrait Gallery, and created a story based on two completely different objects. Using those objects, in groups of two, we constructed a story that connected two unrelated objects. My partner and I created a story based on a painting of Katy Perry and a photograph of Jack Dempsey. These people are from different time periods and backgrounds, yet we could create a story using the context around the objects and our imagination. Of course, this exercise may seem a bit silly, but it is a great example of how objects are the center of a story and are integral to expanding beyond the visual.

cupcake katy
“Cupcake Katy” Artist: Will Cotton