Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Unpacking My Museum Trip To China

I just returned from Beijing, China where I was invited to present lectures and workshops around the theme of "Developing Engaging Museum Exhibitions."

The program was coordinated by the ICOM International Training Centre for Museum Studies (ICOM-ITC), housed at the Palace Museum in Beijing, and is a collaboration between ICOM, ICOM China, and the Palace Museum

The Palace Museum --- nice spot for a workshop!

As is the custom of ICOM-ITC, about half of the program participants were museum professionals based in China, while the participants from outside China came from such countries as Iran, Zambia, Colombia, and Armenia.

I was one of two international lecturers (and the only participant from the U.S.) My workshops focused on Prototyping, Interactive Exhibit Experiences, and Exhibit Evaluation. I was ably joined by the energetic and engaging Lucimara Letelier, an independent museum professional from Brazil.  Lucimara covered topics related to Museum Marketing, Branding, and Audience Development.

Lucimara in action.

Since I am writing this post just after a 24-hour burst of airplane and airport travel, I'm still processing my experiences in China (and still a little jet-lagged!) but here are some of my initial impressions:

"Engaging" means many things in museums  
We often think of exhibits being "engaging" through hands-on interactives or the integration of technology, but audience "engagement" begins even before visitors enter your museum. Lucimara stressed the importance of "The Five Ps" when it comes to museum marketing and engaging audiences: Price, Place, Product, People, and Promotion. 

The term "prototyping" doesn't translate well
It helps if everyone shares a common understanding of the terms you are using --- especially in a workshop filled with museum folks from around the world!  It became apparent in my first talk that the term "prototyping" didn't translate very well, so we re-branded prototyping as "trying things out."

Trying out a prototype.

Museum people share common challenges
It was a pleasure to work with such enthusiastic and curious people during my ICOM-ITC presentations.  It was gratifying to share common challenges (and encouragement and ideas) with such a far-flung group.  A great strength of the museum business is the willingness of museum folks to share with each other.

China is in the midst of a museum boom
I was really struck by the tremendous level of support that the Chinese government provides to the museum sector. Not only does this support translate to museums and museum projects spread throughout the country, but over 87% of the 4246 Museums in China are admission free.

As another example of this museum boom, I was told that in the next few years they will add over 300 new science centers in China!

Inside the HUGE Capital Museum in Beijing

You can do a lot in a short time ... if you focus!
A surprising aspect of focused workshop time (and also working with outside consultants!) is that once we are removed from the seemingly constant distractions of the museum workplace, we can accomplish a surprising amount of work in a relatively short period of time.  

In my workshops we created exhibit prototypes, developed interactive exhibit approaches, tried some visitor evaluation techniques inside one of the Palace Museum's exhibition galleries, and rounded out the week by developing a pop-up exhibition!

Of course, my trip to China wasn't ALL work! A wonderful aspect of the ICOM-ITC workshop was the opportunity to tour the Palace Museum (known as "The Forbidden City" to many Westerners) and important cultural sites like The Great Wall as a group.  

The workshop participants also got to socialize together by visiting different parts of Beijing together at night.  This work/play combination really created a great group dynamic and forged important professional ties.  I feel like I have a new group of international museum colleagues.

Traveling to other countries (and museums!) helps provides perspective on our own life and work.  Being a part of ICOM-ITC was a wonderful professional and personal experience that I will never forget!  

At The Great Wall!

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Friday, November 3, 2017

A Guest Post From The High Seas!

Charissa Ruth is a freelance educator based in Brooklyn, New York. She is currently working onboard the JOIDES Resolution, a scientific research vessel, as an Education and Outreach Officer. Before sailing the seas, she was working in various museums and cultural institutions teaching school, afterschool, and family programs. She'd like to try her hand at stand-up comedy sometime in the future so if you've got really good jokes you can send them her way.

Charissa was kind enough to share this guest post from onboard the JOIDES Resolution:

The towering structure in the middle is the derrick which stabilizes
the pipe as we drop it down and collect core samples. 

It’s a different world living on a moving, floating structure. On an impeccably blue and white background, you can see the crew decked in red moving here and there, constantly at work. From my office window, I can see the ocean, I can see the drilling derrick towering over the rest of the ship as guardian, and I can see the catwalk where the scientists first meet the new core.

We are a small city at sea. We have scientists from all over the world --- Brazil, Australia, USA, China, Japan, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Korea, and Italy. The bulk of conversation happens in English but you can hear snippets of accents and languages from all over. It reminds me of Brooklyn, of home.

Sometimes it can feel pretty lonely or isolating out here.
There are also picnic tables for people to sit at for
our weekly outside BBQ (weather permitting). 

Work is happening around the clock. We all have twelve-hour work shifts and everyone is allotted some daylight hours and some nighttime hours in which to keep progress happening. There’s a pleasant rhythm at work. Meal times happen four times a day, with cookie time or break time twice a day. People are waking up and going to bed at all hours of the day. “Good Morning” replaces “Hello” as the common greeting.

It’s been humbling to learn the rudimentary tenets of geology from geologists. All I knew of rocks and fossils is what I remember from picking up and playing with them outside as a kid. In a way, I feel I have regressed back to an infant stage. Everything is new, I feel overwhelmed at times with the amount of new information, and I’m learning to speak a new language slowly but surely.

Once the cores reach room temperature, we split them open to look at. 
Here we see half of the cores laid out for observation and 
we are looking at some black basalt. 

One of my major responsibilities as an Education and Outreach Officer on the JOIDES Resolution is to facilitate live broadcasts to classrooms all around the world. (You can find out more information and learn how to sign up a classroom here.) Just this week, we’ve talked to students in Brazil, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Later this month, we have groups from Japan, South Korea, and Germany. Learning to speak this new scientific language, I now become a translator for students young and old.

We talk about plate tectonics, rock layers, fossils so small you need a powerful microscope to see them. We talk about what it’s like to live on a scientific research vessel with 120 souls onboard. We talk about how they, the students, can make their way into this field and maybe one day onto this ship. The message is clear - there are still places in this world where you can be an explorer and discoverer.  

Thanks Charissa for sharing your shipboard experiences with ExhibiTricks readers, and good luck with the remainder of your voyage!


The ship lit up at night while still in port in Hobart.
Photo credit: Bill Crawford

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Thursday, October 26, 2017

Thinks and Links: Reflecting on the ASTC 2017 Conference

The 2017 ASTC (Association of Science-Technology Centers) Conference just wrapped up in San Jose, California.

As you might expect, given the audience of science-minded folks hunkering down in the heart of Silicon Valley there was much discussion of tech, but I was also left with the feeling that the Science Center field (and perhaps the entire museum and cultural sector) is in a time of introspection and re-evaluation.

Saturday, October 21st, the first day of the Conference, got off to a bit of a rocky start with the looongest opening keynote ceremony ever --- clocking in at over 3 hours!  Despite the mind (and butt!) numbing duration, there were some bright spots including outgoing Board Chair Linda Conlon giving an impassioned speech entitled, Scientific Evidence Is Proving No Match for Emotionalism

The opening ceremonies concluded on a high note --- a conversation with Brendan IribeCEO at Oculus VR, who shared his early experiences and inspirations designing exhibits for the Tech Museum in San Jose. He also discussed his initiative called Virtual Science Center.

Sessions on Saturday continued this tech/society trend with topics ranging from how to use digital games as audience engagement tools to "smart exhibits" to environmental sustainability actions in museums.  I especially enjoyed a practical session called "Under Pressure" all about demonstrations with air.

Paul Taylor shows off the Giant Eye/Air Pressure trick.
Saturday night ended with a smashing party courtesy of our hosts, The Tech Museum of Innovation.  (where we saw The Tech's newest exhibition, Body Worlds Decoded.)

Sunday morning dawned with an interesting experiment, The Distributed ASTC Conference.  This was a live conversation with speakers in San Jose, as well as four Science Centers in the Middle East on the topic of how truth and science have intersected and diverged over time --- a true mix of technology and society!  I applaud ASTC for giving new formats like this a try.

Sessions on Sunday continued a broad range of tech and public-focused topics including STEM Community Partnerships, The Power of Narrative, and Using Role-Playing Games to Build Community Disaster Resilience.

I was fortunate to moderate a set of "Flash" (10 minutes or less) Sessions on "Public Engagement with Scientific Methods" showing creative ways to help communities engage with scientists and data.  One of the presenters, Rik Panganiban from the California Academy of Sciences, provided this helpful link for tips on setting up a Science Game Jam at your museum.

Another new Conference approach this year was a "Side Talks" area set up near the registration desk where session presenters or conference attendees could sign up for blocks of time to discuss current topics of interest with like-minded attendees.  Our Flash Talks presenters moved to the Side Talks area with many attendees from our session to continue the conversations.  I think once ASTC Conference attendees get used to the idea of Side Talks, some very fruitful conversations will happen here. (As we all know, the learning happens outside sessions as well!)

On Sunday afternoon I was delighted to be one of the presenters on panel on Digital Exhibit Fails & Wins.  A great range of wins and fails were shown, but I was struck by three commonalities in all the "winning" examples of digital exhibits and interfaces discussed:

1) Testing and iteration with visitors produced the best digital exhibits.

2) Digital exhibits that promote interaction and conversation are the most popular and memorable.

3) Novel/Surprising Interfaces. (Think non-screen and iPad approaches.)

Dave Patten from Science Museum London shows a slide with the Queen's
Security Detail trying out a new interactive before a Royal opening ceremony.

As is often the case at conferences, there are so many good choices for sessions that you can't get to all of them.  That was certainly my problem on Monday the 23rd.  While I enjoyed the session I attended on "Creative Ways to Engage the Public with Climate Change" (see resource links in the image below) I also would have wanted to attend "Happy Birthday Frankenstein!" about using the 200th anniversary to explore the science and the world behind the classic book, as well as "Closing the Play Gap for Social Change." (Can any ExhibiTricks readers who attended these sessions share some thoughts in the "Comments" section below this post?)

The Closing Keynote Session on Monday provided a dialogue on how Science Centers can better serve their communities and what that really means.  I was especially struck by the challenges presented by Emily Dawson's research (as she Skyped in from the UK.)  

Check out Emily's Twitter account, and also her paper "Social justice and out-of-school science learning: Exploring equity in science television, science clubs and maker spaces."

Emily Dawson Skyping in from the UK

One of my favorite sessions on Monday was headed up by Tom Rockwell of the Exploratorium and dealt with the notion of "hybrid" organizations.  Tom brilliantly illustrated the audience discussion as a wireless microphone was passed around.  (You can see the end results below.)

I managed to finish up my ASTC trip to San Jose by zipping over to San Francisco to see the Exploratorium and SF MoMA before my redeye back to New York.  It was great to see some of the exhibit developers and "shop rats" while at Explo, and none more so than the ever-enthusiastic and resourceful Tom Tompkins who shared one of his latest finds, nullschool.net with me.

Did you attend #ASTC2017?  If so, feel free to share some of your own thoughts and takeaways in the "Comments" section below!

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