Museum Manifesto

I’ve visited one or two museums per week for two months. Based on these experiences, here’s the “museum manifesto” I wrote up detailing what I think makes for a powerful, interactive learning experience in a public setting.

  1. A museum should immerse visitors and encourage them to explore and discover for themselves. Visitors should feel like they are wandering and finding their own path through the exhibits.
  2. Didactics should be easy to find and present information clearly and in bite-size chunks so that information isn’t overwhelming. The American Museum of Natural History and the Bronx Zoo do this well.
  3. Museum employees should be informed and friendly.
  4. Exhibits should be beautifully designed and well-maintained.
  5. A museum must provide visitors with access to something they wouldn’t ordinarily have access to, or provide them with information and content in a new way. They should feel as if they have gained exclusive access to the content. If something isn’t normally seen up close, bring them closer to it.
  6. You are the center of your world. A museum should enable visitors to see themselves, personally relate to the exhibit or provide opportunity to change the exhibit in some way as a result of their interaction with it. The solar panel at Cooper-Hewitt that looked like a series of mirrors had me transfixed for a while, and the didactics in the Bronx Zoo made me aware of the issues facing animals in their lives, and how certain animal features relate to things in our daily lives, e.g. “a beak is better than a Swiss Army Knife.”
  7. Technology should be seamlessly integrated into exhibits so it doesn’t look like the museum is using technology for technology’s sake. The technology should be well-maintained.
  8. Memories, personal stories and emotions play vital roles in how people experience a museum. Some museums should try to trigger these emotions to provide a richer, more memorable visitor experience.
  9. A visitor should leave the museum with some understanding that they’ve personally gained something – knowledge, memories, or a feeling of accomplishment.
  10. Exhibits should be designed with photo opportunities in mind. Parents love to take pictures of their kids in front of dinosaurs, tigers and huge pieces of art. Teens and young adults may be seeking interesting Facebook profile picture opportunities. For example, there are always two queues of tourists on Wall Street waiting to have their picture taken with the bull. In my experience, the queue at the back of the bull waiting to have their picture taken with his backside is always much longer than the queue waiting to have their picture taken at the front.
  11. There should be “breather” spaces between exhibits or sections of the museum, with natural light and seating, that enable visitors to take a short rest if needed, catch up and talk after the exhibits.

Thesis Prep

I often have a tough time figuring out what to do for projects, so I’m taking Thesis Prep this semester in the hope that I’ll be able to focus on doing, rather than thinking about, my thesis in Spring 2011. Watch this space for Kat’s soul-searching, mind-mapping fun and games.

Looking at Pictures

I pondered this huge bale of hay at MoMA for quite a while, wondering how exactly a cattle herd’s dinner had found its way to midtown Manhattan. The hay smelled good and tapped into childhood memories of my family’s neighbors in Ireland making hay in the summertime.

Here’s what went through my head: A bale of hay in MoMA! Sweet! I prefer loose hay though. Once hay goes through the baler, I can no longer toss the cut, dried grass up in the air with my feet as I run in the field. Still, square bales are better than round bales. Round bales are usually covered with plastic and tend to smell like rotting grass after a while.

Why is this bale so large, I wondered? Why is it at MoMA? And why are all these people walking by instead of stopping to look at it?

After sketching the hay, I found a plaque on the wall with the artist’s name and statement – Brazilian artist Cielo Miereles created the piece, Thread (1990-95). Rather than a single bale of hay, this sculpture is actually comprised of “forty-eight bales of hay, one 18-carat gold needle, and fifty-eight meters of gold thread.”

Thus, I was looking at a needle (albeit a gold one) in a haystack.

According to the statement on the wall, Thread evokes the “geometric rationality of Minimalist art” in a medium normally associated with agriculture, and the gold needle is connected to the wire. The piece “suggests the precariousness of economic relationships…and the place of the individual within a larger social system.”

Cabinets of Wonder: Tenement Museum

Prior to visiting the Tenement Museum, I expected that it would make me think about my grandparents’ immigration from Ireland to the United States and imagine what it was like for them. It did, but unexpectedly only after I left the place – because while in the museum, we were busy imagining ourselves in the situation in which they put us.

Fourteen-year-old Victoria Confino welcomed the Cabinets of Wonder class (playing the role of a Russian Jewish family of twelve, who had just disembarked the ship after a 3-week journey across the Atlantic) into her apartment. The more questions we asked, the more we learned about Victoria. It was an effective way to learn. All tours are guided, so we couldn’t wander around by ourselves – but we were encouraged to let our minds wander within the context. It helped us to learn through imagination – through putting ourselves in someone else’s place. That Victoria was a professional actress, rather than a museum guide or curator, made the tour all the more interesting.

It was fun getting into the character of a 9-year-old Russian who had just disembarked from a transatlantic voyage in steerage. It was challenging not to giggle at first while in character. As time went on, we played around a bit more – my 10-year-old sister Patricia asked for a doctor to look at my right foot, which I’d injured on the boat, which in turn got Victoria telling us about how we’d need to fix our own medical problems while living in the tenement.

The Tenement Museum felt nothing like the museums we’ve been to, because it put us in the position of real people who lived at 97 Orchard Street almost a hundred years ago, as opposed to people who are viewing objects in a museum. It brought us closer to the past, putting nothing between history and ourselves – unlike many other places we’ve seen, where we can’t touch most things or have to settle for observing things through windows.

Through the kinds of questions we asked, we were reminded us that people in those days were like us – just ordinary people. Also, this museum made me want to go back – we just saw one story yesterday, but there are more stories in there.

Breathing and Posture are Important (right?)

I’ve been dabbling around with a bunch of biofeedback sensors recently in an effort to figure out what to do with them. What personal data do I want to collect, and what data would actually be interesting to work with? I’ve played with heartrate, GSR, light, temperature and now I want to collect data on my posture and breathing. I’m thinking that I’ll just make the sensors wearable, add a datalogger, wear them as much as possible for a few days while recording my mood and what I’m doing, and maybe my location, look at the data and cross my fingers to find some idiosyncrasies that I wasn’t previously aware of.

Below is a sketch of my basic idea and schematic. I plan to build it this week.


From 'Fresh Kills' to 'Freshkills'

On Sunday, October 3 I visited the Freshkills Park site on Staten Island. It took 2.5 hours of transit to get there from the East Village, including subway, Staten Island Ferry, the S62 bus and, finally, a shuttle bus provided by the park. Kind of a pain to get there, but by the time the park opens I’m sure that part will be figured out.

Freshkills is an NYC park, but feels worlds away from Prospect Park or Central Park – and with good cause, because Freshkills Park was once the Fresh Kills Landfill. Once complete, Freshkills will cover 2,200 acres and will be the largest of New York City’s parks, almost three times the size of Central Park.

There’s lots of history beneath your feet in Freshkills Park. Beneath the park’s four hills are 150 million tons of garbage, much of which was collected from New York residences between 1948 and 2001. There’s a good chance that my grandparents’ trash is in there somewhere, alongside the trash of all the other New Yorkers (and those who visited) between those years. To add to the park’s history, materials from the World Trade Center site were also disposed of at the Fresh Kills Landfill.

One of the park planners led our tour up the North Hill and discussed the plans for the park’s development, as well as how the landfill gas and leachate emitted by the decomposing trash are being recovered and processed.

I loved hearing about the place’s past, and really look forward to seeing how it comes together in the next 20 years or so – by which point we’ll hopefully be able to teleport ourselves there from Manhattan.

Below are some pictures from the open day at Freshkills Park. Click on the thumbnails for a larger image.