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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