The American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting this year in New Orleans (AAM2019) is focused on how museums and cultural institutions can connect with the communities they serve in new ways. My colleagues, Phoebe McDougal, Carly Swaim, and Laura Starr are fanning out to see and report on as much as we can!
Here are some of our take-aways from the first day of the conference:
Historic sites are expanding their stories and missions. They are creating experiences that embrace technology, tell fuller, more inclusive stories, employ creative solutions for environmental or archaeological problems, and are more in line with what visitors want to see and learn. Examples include:
- Menokin (Virginia) – this historic Virginia house was in ruins, but through visitor surveys, the staff found that visitors loved it that way! Staffers embraced the story of architecture and historic preservation, enabling them to focus on the 400 years of history visible in the house’s remaining structure.
- Dumbarton House (DC) –telling a larger story to include the women in the family, as well as more stories about the free, enslaved, and indentured people who worked in the house.
- Pointe-a-Calliere (Montreal) – creatively displaying archaeological findings under a glass floor.
- Vizcaya Museum & Gardens (FL) – used 3D imaging technology to better preserve threatened parts of the site and allow visitors to experience them up close.
Museums can serve as a catalyst for empathy. Studies indicate that there has been a general decline in empathy over the years for a variety of reasons. Museums are taking advantage of their spaces to help facilitate empathetic learning. For example, museum text can use rhetorical questions that place the visitor into the situation, tell a relatable story, or use imagery that evokes shared human experiences. Other examples include:
- Atlanta History Center – hired and trained actors who engage school groups and family groups in historical plays, tours, and family programs in the museum theater. Topics range from Civil Rights to the Trail of Tears. They also built immersive areas where visitors can listen to real people talking about their feelings when they experienced historical events.
- Woodland Park Zoo – overhauled their interpretive programs to incorporate empathy into visitor interactions. This included connecting animals’ qualities to human characteristics and using names and pronouns for animals, emphasizing that individual animals have their own stories.
- Minneapolis Institute of Art – conducts visitor quizzes via smartphone to connect pieces of art with feelings. Visitors are prompted to look at an image and describe the feeling the image evokes.
More take-aways from AAM2019 to come!