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 Museum of Natural History

DC Day 9

Today, we visited two exhibits at the National Museum of Natural History. We visited the Ocean Hall and the Hall of Human Origins. Our guide was one of the museum’s paleontologists, who informed us of how the museum approached the exhibits, and some of the changes that have occurred in the display of natural history specimens.

In the Ocean Hall I noticed a lot of “what can you do to help” blurbs and “how do we know this information” weaved throughout the exhibit. The staff member guiding us around mentioned that the museum strives to inform and educate the public rather than try to force an opinion on visitors. Using these interpretive tools creates transparency between the museum and visitors because the museum is explaining the research in an accessible way.

Label in Ocean Hall
Label in Ocean Hall













The Hall of Human Origins is an exhibit about human evolution, which is another controversial topic. The museum has the collection objects that demonstrate evolution and use the objects as a starting point for discussing evolution. The exhibit is designed with the objects and research that the Smithsonian Institution has conducted as the focus. The museum has the information and evidence to support the idea of evolution. Since evolution is a controversial topic, some visitors may try to refute the existence of evolution, but the visitor does not have the evidence to back up the lack of evolution. Evolution will likely always be controversial, but natural history museums have the responsibility to discuss the topic and educate the visitors about the current research.

Entry to Hall of Human Origins
Research panel in Hall of Human Origins
Label in Hall of Human Origins


Mount Vernon

DC Day 8

You may have noticed that days 6 and 7 are missing, well it was the weekend, so I took a break from the blog. Today was day 8 of the seminar, which was spent at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. The focus of today was tackling the conversation of slavery in museums. Mount Vernon recently opened a new exhibit on slavery, Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, which we toured with the lead Associate Curator of the exhibit.

Discussing slavery is a controversial topic, but it is a topic that needs to be and should be discussed. In order to enter the exhibit, you must open a set of glass doors, which are covered with the names of the enslaved people who were at Mount Vernon. One thing that stuck out to me was that the Curator said it was a conscious decision to put the names on the door with a bust of George Washington in the lobby, so that when you look at the doors the first thing you focus on is the name of the people.

Entrance to “Lives Bound Together”

I liked this concept, in fact I had not even noticed the bust of George Washington through the doors because I was looking at the names. From the get-go, the visitor is aware that the enslaved people are the focus of the exhibit and not necessarily Washington as the primary focus.

Another noticeable trend was that the staff do not refer to the people as slaves, but as enslaved people. There is a difference between the two terms, and referring to them as enslaved humanizes them more so than slaves does because the choice of word influences how you interpret the content. In our discussions with staff, it was evident that word choice is very important, especially when discussing slavery because you want the visitor to make a personal connection and be educated during their visit.

A trend that I have noticed throughout our museum visits is the use of silhouettes and unidentifiable drawings of people. The National Museum of the American Indian used these non-detailed drawings in the interactive about “what would you do,” and Mount Vernon used the same technique in the exhibit’s introduction video and on the panels of the enslaved people highlighted in the exhibit. When talking about a large group of people and, in the case of Mount Vernon, when detailed records are not available the visuals should reflect the broader idea. When images or drawings were available, the curatorial team at Mount Vernon included those images in the panels.

Lives Bound Together was an enlightening exhibit for me because I did not know some of the information presented, such as that Washington did not actually own all the slaves working on his farms and that slaves could be rented. The latter was shocking to me because I had never heard that before, and I am an educated person. Slavery needs to be discussed in museums because it is an important story to tell.

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 Air and Space Museum, National Museum of the American Indian

DC Day 3

Digital interactives on-site and the digital world off-site are still a new world for museums. Museums want to incorporate interactives and digital tools into the visitor experience, but it must be included thoughtfully and intentionally. Technology cannot be added for the sake of incorporating technology. Digital tools added to exhibits or the museum’s website still must be evaluated just as traditional interactives in exhibits, and the visitor’s opinions matter to the museum. The importance of visitor feedback was evident today during our discussions with staff from the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian.

The National Air and Space Museum has a new philosophy of “Stories First,” which included a revamp of the museum’s website, the creation of a mobile application, and a new exhibition. The museum’s website was updated so that stories can be found more easily by the casual visitor. One of the tools used to accomplish this was creating a specific taxonomy using terms the general public will likely use to search for stories. The new app, Go Flight, has its own taxonomy, and it connects with the digital tools in the new exhibition at the museum. Visitors can use the app both in and out of the museum, so the stories can be accessed from anywhere, and their on-site visit can be enhanced by using the tools in the app.

Detail of interactive board at the National Air and Space Museum in the exhibit, “Milestones of Flight”

The National Museum of the American Indian incorporates a touchscreen interactive in the exhibit Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations that offers a “what would you do?” scenario. It is similar to the lunch counter interactive at the National Museum of African American History and Culture that I discussed in one of my previous posts. Both are based on actual events that Native Americans and African Americans had to face. The design of the interactives is completely different at each museum, but the concept is the same, what decision would you make if you were in that person’s shoes. This type of interactive is very powerful for the visitor because it connects the visitor to the story and personalizes the story in a way that a traditional text label cannot accomplish.

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