Playing with modern technology… or lack thereof?

When we think about “modern technology” in museums, the first things that come to mind are shiny LCD televisions, interactive ipad-like touch-screen tables, or perhaps a cell phone audio tour.  These are perhaps great ways of engaging the already tech-savvy visitor or showing the public that museums are still relevant in the age of the internet, but how modern does this technology have to be in order to engage the visitor in a meaningful and educational way?

I recently went to the visitor’s center at Great Falls National Park in Great Falls, Virginia. Unlike the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum, this visitor’s center was very sparse in terms of the most modern and up-to-date technology, with the exception of a few LCD televisions mounted on the walls. In fact, the very first object that you walk into is a giant topographical map, which visitors are encouraged to touch.

As you enter the exhibit area to the right of the map, on the wall exists a typical timeline that could be found in a nature center. The timeline explained the geological features of the area, the Chesapeake Watershed, as well as the parks pre-historic history.  Right below this timeline are some castings of animal footprints… which are available to touch. Rounding the corner in front of a large window stood four mannequins in period clothing. On a stand in front of them was a button, so I pressed it. Suddenly a spotlight shown on one and a voice came out of the speaker behind me; a voice began to narrate a story about this gentleman’s life in Matildaville.

Push the button and they'll talk to you! WOW!

The left wall contained a cut-out shape of a trolley, with more buttons

Trolley Wall

This time, the visitor was encouraged to pick up one of the phones on the trolley to hear an oral history account of someone who had actually ridden on the trolley to the Great Falls Amusement Park. If you couldn’t understand or hear the speaker, cards with the text of the recordings were located under the phones.

Oral History Telephones

As began to make my way out of the exhibit, another display board challenged visitors to think about the actions they would take in order to preserve the park and the natural environment of the region. The picture is self-explanatory.

After having this experience, I reflected upon my own experience as a docent, remembering that people like to press buttons. And touch things. Especially in areas where touching is “not allowed”.  This is the way in which many people make sense of their world. Children do this through play, whereas when we become adults we find ourselves in the situation where touching objects and our surrounding environment isn’t always appropriate. The Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia is almost entirely dedicated to play and states on their website that “Play offers an emotional outlet, develops the imagination and creativity, and cultivates problem solving skills.” However, they don’t limit their playing environment to just children. Adults have the chance to participate in play activities through programs such as Parents Empowered by Play and Portable Play Programs.

Even science centers are still making use of low-tech to make their point (and doing a great job of encouraging play in the process). The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in San Diego, California uses “simple” materials such as sand, water and magnets to demonstrate geological phenomena on a small scale in their Earth Exposed exhibit. One of their newest exhibits- Block Busters! , allows visitors to try their skill at engineering with KEVA planks. According to their website, visitors can challenge themselves to create the following:

“Spirals” – Make a structure using spirals. How many different types of spirals can be made? How can the number of layers be designed in different ways to complete a revolution?

“Impossible Structures” – Build a structure and remove some of the planks to create a sculpture that could not be built from the ground up, such as an eagle or hexagon uprights.

“Think Like an Architect” – Build a tower as tall as yourself! Add patterns and structure to make it more beautiful or interesting.

“Minimalism” – Build a sculpture using only ten planks or objects with only the most essential elements –i.e. an airplane with three planks.

An added benefit to this exhibit is that the adult visitor can become just as engaged as the child!

Reflecting back to the trip to the Gettysburg National Military Park and Museum (see Engaging the Visitor through Touchscreen Technology), I have to admit that I was personally more engaged by the touch tables than by the objects on display. Conversely, I feel as though I were more engaged by my experience at Great Falls. Each visitor will experience something different than the next, however, I have to wonder if incorporating modern technology into exhibits might mean that if we cannot find that balance, we re-define what “modern technology” means altogether.


Adults and Learning Disabilities: The Silent Epidemic

Take a moment to imagine your life, and how it would be drastically different, if you were unable to read. Initially, minor inconveniences may come to mind like not being able to pass the time on your Metro commute by catching up on the news. What would be much more problematic, however, is not being able to decipher the station signs indicating at which Metro stop you are arriving. Consider being illiterate and the challenges you would face at the grocery store or the doctor’s office. These would not be minor inconveniences but fundamental obstacles to functioning in a society.

As far removed as this scenario may seem to us, it is a reality for 37% of the adults in the District of Columbia. Another 24% of D.C. adults lack “higher-level reading and problem-solving skills.” That means that a staggering 61% of adults in the nation’s capital possess literacy skills in the lowest two levels of the five-level scale used by the National Center for Education Statistics.

While it is certainly not always the case that a person who has a learning disability cannot read, it is likely that an adult that cannot read has a learning disability. According to Rita Daniels, the Director of Literacy Volunteers and Advocates, an adult literacy non-profit in D.C., practically all of the enrolled learners who have been tested have been diagnosed with some type of learning disability.

There are rights to educational services afforded to children with learning disabilities through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), but these rights can end at the age of 21. The learning disability, however, does not simply go away at this age. Therefore, many of the adults who have learning disabilities, a proportion of which have no or low literacy skills, have few options for education or other assistance after they reach the age of 21. They struggle to function in a society that largely ignores the issue and they do their best to hide their inabilities because of the associated stigma. This is why illiteracy has been called “the silent epidemic.”

Could this be where museums come into the picture? For a museum to truly engage the community, outreach should be inclusive to all populations and the institution must seek diverse audiences. While there can certainly be vast improvement, some efforts have been made to reach and accommodate audiences with cognitive and learning disabilities. MoMA, for example, hosts a program designed specifically for individuals with developmental or learning disabilities called “Create Ability,” where individuals with learning disabilities “explore various artworks…and create artworks in the classroom.” However, the program’s target age is 5-18+. Similar to IDEA, programming and services in the museum setting offered to people with learning disabilities  seem to stop at adulthood, too. Encouragingly, The Metropolitan Museum of Art offers Discoveries, a “Sunday program for adults and children with learning and/or developmental disabilities, together with friends and family members.” There are specific times the program is offered to adults with learning disabilities, separate from children or teens.

The Met’s programming especially is a sign that progress is being made in reaching out to adults with cognitive or learning disabilities. However, these are just the very first baby steps on what will, and must be, a long and prosperous journey. It simply is not possible for museums to remain relevant to their communities operating under the assumption that audiences with learning disabilities are just a small niche and one that consists only of children. Just ask 6 of the next 10 Washingtonians you meet and they will tell you that that is a painfully inaccurate assumption.

Can museum programs engage young professionals?

Museum programs catering to adults can be defined as an informal learning environment, attracting life long learners who are interested in combining, “their personal interests, professional expertise, and social consciousness” (Grenier 1). According to Marsick & Watkins, the information people learn from an informal environment may be incidental or unconsciously attained (26). However, in an informal learning environment an idea or insight may be purposefully probed based on an organization’s “hidden agenda” (Marsick & Watkins (Davis)26). In regards to museums, the hidden agenda would very much relate to the mission and vision statements from which the program was created.

I would like to briefly explore the types of informal learning posed by Marsick & Watkins and how these theories apply to museum programs. Self-directed learning, or SDL, is an adult learning concept that developed in the early 1960’s, which stemmed from androgogy (Merriam 4). Malcolm Knowles redefined androgogy, specifically for North America, in order to distinguish adult learning from pedagogy. Knowles’ version of androgogy evolved into an educational concept that is learner-centered, versus teacher-directed (Merriam 6). Whereas SDL, using the further refined definition of Tough*, is a type of adult learning that “occurs as part of adults’ everyday life, and that is systematic yet does not depend on an instructor or classroom” and recognizes “that learners become increasingly self-directed as they mature” (Merriam 8). In addition, the SDL is an independent learner that is encouraged by student led discussion (Merriam 10).

Although adult learning theories are extremely applicable to museum programming, the two fields did not start to merge until the late 20th century (Dudzinska-Przesmitzki 1) In addition, according to Sachatello-Sawyer, et al, many museums do not have an educator focused exclusively on adult programs (72). Instead educators are mainly focused on family or children programming.

The importance of lifelong learning in relation to adults is not only an issue concerning museums. For instance the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Towards Knowledge Society report, which studied life long learning’s importance on a global level, recognized that life long learning needs to be socially recognized and polices addressing life long learning need to “…incorporate these many different places and forms of learning, including self-education” (75). It is in museums where these lifelong learning goals can be achieved, however.

According to Sachetello-Sawyer, museum educators have been using concepts of adult learning theory to identify four types of adult learners: knowledge seekers, socializers, skill builders, and museum lovers (7-8). Various combinations of these categories are used to identify why adults participate in museum programs. Regarding the young professional demographic identified, Sachetello-Sawyer noted these adults, aged 18-35, are mainly concerned with establishing themselves in their careers and/or establishing families (5). As a result these personal focus areas are also areas of learning concentrations that a young professional would want to address in an informal learning environment (Sachatello-Sawyer, Fellenz and Burton 5).

Are adult museum programs being created to fully engage their targeted audience?

In the fall of 2010, I conducted an interview with Mark Davis, Membership Manager at the National Building Museum (NBM) in Washington, DC. Mark and his education team had been developing a new program targeted specifically for young, emerging professionals in the Construction, Architecture, and Design fields, or CAD professionals. Adhering to the importance of mission-based programs at NBM, Mark and his team were interested in creating a series of programs that would attract young CAD professionals beyond a primarily social event, such as a happy hour. Rather, Mark envisioned these events to be museum sponsored programs that would allow young CAD professionals to network and establish professional relationships. In addition, these young adults would be introduced the NBM, not only as a cultural institution that may be of interest, but also as a place outside of work where they could continue to further their careers.

In order to assist Mark and the NBM educational staff in creating a CAD young professional program, a focus group of 10-12 CAD professionals was established. The group voiced an interest in events that would allow networking among other CAD professionals and an opportunity to further discuss ideas and concepts concerning the built environment profession. The statements from the focus group are very much in line with the SDL adult learning theories, particularly in regards to networking and student led discussions. In addition, the focus group members exemplify a combination of adult learner types such as: knowledge seekers, skill builders, and socializers. The focus group also specifically acknowledged professional networking as a desired activity of these events, which correlates with the needs of the 18-35 age group that Sachatello-Sawyer, et al, recognized. Forming a focus group to help develop the CAD young professional program is significant in creating a meaningful program for the adult learners by educators understanding what adult learners want (Sachatello-Sawyer, Fellenz and Burton 105).

Based on the input of the focus group, Mark and the NBM education team decided to expand upon a popular lecture series offered to the public, “For the Greener Good.” The new CAD professional lecture series is scheduled to begin in January 2011. In addition to the lecture, a reception will be held for CAD professionals exclusively, with drinks and light food, after the lecture. The hope is that the lecturers will stay to mingle and discuss topics with CAD professionals. In addition, the inclusion of a reception offers NBM an opportunity to engage the CAD young professionals, by offering a more relax environment, which is also essential to meaningful adult programs. I believe that the NBM CAD young professional series exemplifies a type of museum program that offers mutual trust and mutual respect between the institution and the adult learner, an important emphasis in regards to adult learning recognized by Malcolm Knowles.

Davis, Mark. Director of Education National Building Museum (interview) Jennifer Paper. October 2010.
Dudzinska-Przesmitzki, Dana and Robin S. Grenier. “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and Never the Two Shall Meet: A Critical Review of Museum Studies and Adult Education Literature.” Adult Education Conference. 2008.
Grenier, Robin S. “How Do Museums Fit into our Notions of Adult Education?” Adult Education Conference. 2007.
Lackie, Robert J, John W LeMasney and Kathleen M Pierce. Teaching Generation M. Ed. Vibiana Bowman Cvetkovic and Robert J Lackie. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc., n.d.
Marsick, Victoria J. and Karen E Watkins. “Informal and Incidental Learning.” New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education 89.Spring (2001): 25-34.
Merriam, Sharan B. “Andragogy and Self-Directed Learning: Pillars of Adult Learning Theory.” New Directions For Adult and Continuing Education No. 89 (Spring 2001).
Sachatello-Sawyer, Bonnie, et al. Adult Museum Programs: Designing Meaningful Experiences. New York: Altamira Press, 2002.
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. “Towards Knowledge Societies.” 2005.


Websites and Kids

It’s easy to assume that kids these days, with their rap music and their cell phones, are going to be most interested in first interacting with a museum through its website. Unsurprisingly, online exhibitions and games are often targeted at a museum’s younger visitors (sometimes through a specifically named “Kids” section, sometimes not), but are these always helpful? I would argue that a poorly done Kids section–and even website in general–could very well be worse than no kids section at all.

One of my favorite examples of a Kids section that just doesn’t make the grade comes from Boston Children’s Museum, an organization near and dear to my heart. While the museum offers an aesthetically pleasing and engaging website, there is something lacking in the Kids online games section–mostly, online games. When I first accessed the site two years ago, it didn’t even have Our Green Trail, which I will say is a slickly designed and well done game about conserving energy, advertised with kiosks throughout the museum itself. And while Our Green Trail is well designed, it takes time, and effort, and may not draw in a casual visitor, especially one more interested in a quick flash game. The other two games featured are Construction Worker and two e-postcards, and, to be completely honest, I would say it’s generous to call either of those games.

In other sections of the website, it’s clear that Boston Children’s Museum has many exciting exhibits on site, but their online play just doesn’t reflect this. Compare with the Fun and Games section from the National Museum of Play in Rochester. While there aren’t many more games than there are at the BCM website, they are all truly games, with a range of subjects and appealing designs. This is what one would hope for from a museum dedicated to play, but it’s also what one would hope for from any online games section.

When looking at museums and technology, critics often bring up technology for technology’s sake–that is, shiny gadgets that don’t serve to enhance the content of the museum. The problem with websites could be the opposite, especially when it comes to children–an outdated or unappealing website may serve to convince young visitors that even the most exciting museum is uncool, out-of-touch, or old-fashioned. With institutions that already often trouble with a stodgy reputation, it’s important to make sure that attempts to stay with the times actually are with the times, and with the speed that technology moves, it’s all too easy to fall behind.

Target Audience: Young Professionals

Although there are different types of museum programs for adults, many programs cater to adults within a family unit or retirees. Therefore, this study focuses on the target audience of young professionals and looks at how museums are designing programs for this specific demographic. This blog entry is also advocating that more museums should provide programming opportunities for this demographic and offers a starting point from which museum educators, students, or the general public can begin to create programs applicable to this demographic.

What is the definition of a young professional?

A young professional can be defined in several ways:

  • Age: a young adult can be defined as 18-25.
  • Generation: Generation M -although specifics vary, this generational classification usually refers to adults born in the early 1980s to 1990’s (Lackie, LeMasney and Pierce 3) Generation X -in general this refers to adults born in the late 1960’s to the late 1970’s.
  • Professional Experience: This classification expands the age range to include adults that may have switched careers although keeping in mind the relative definition of young.

For the purpose of this study, a young professional can be classified as a person in either Generation M or X, or within the age range of 25-35, and in the early stages of a career, 1-5 years.

Why create museum programs targeting young professionals?

  • Attendance: One of the stated benefits of a successful museum program is increased membership and return visitation (Sachatello-Sawyer, Fellenz and Burton 137).
  • Fundraising: Fundraising is an essential reality for most museum in the United States, and as generations age a new donor base needs to be realized. Although young professionals may not be able to give significant amounts now, establishing and maintaining a relationship with this group through programming can help establish a viable future donor base.
  • Untapped Demographic: It is becoming increasingly more common, particularly in the United States, for young professionals to put off getting married and/or having kids in order to focus on their careers. Therefore, members of this demographic would not necessarily partake in multi-generational programs usually geared towards families. Recognizing this distinction is essential for creating meaningful programs for young professionals.
Lackie, Robert J, John W LeMasney and Kathleen M Pierce. Teaching Generation M. Ed. Vibiana Bowman Cvetkovic and Robert J Lackie. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc.
Sachatello-Sawyer, Bonnie, et al. Adult Museum Programs: Designing Meaningful Experiences. New York: Altamira Press, 2002.


A Historian, Teen and Senior Citizen Walk Into a Museum – Pt. 1

Keeping in mind the possibilities and pitfalls detailed by the literature, we offer this model of a museum-based partnership between the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, the DC public school system (DCPS) and a local retirement home. The partnership will take the form of a learning project and result in documenting historical change and civic life in Washington, DC. The partnership will be constructed according to the six-part process outlined in the article An Alliance of Spirit: Museums and School Partnerships.

As a national museum located in Washington, DC, the NMAH has an interest in documenting history on the local and national levels, in addition to local events that reflect national trends, or local events of national significance. Through this project, the museum will collect primary-source histories of the events that transpired in the tumultuous 1960s. Through contact with museum staff, students and seniors will discover its operations “behind the scenes.” Students will experience history in a new way, making the discipline (and museum) more accessible. Feeling they have contributed to the understanding of history, seniors may be drawn to further volunteer at the museum or participate in public programs. By asking for community input, the museum will position itself as a listener amidst its community.

Part 1 – Introduction

Part 2 – Initial Program Planning

Part 3 – Front-End Evaluation 

Part 4 – Program Design and Development

Part 5 – Formative Evaluaton

Part 6 – Program Implementation

Part 7 – Summative Feedback 

Part 8 – Summary

A Historian, Teen and Senior Citizen Walk Into a Museum – Pt. 2

The first task the museum faces is reaching out to its partners in the DC public school system (DCPS) and a local senior home. To succeed, each partner’s strengths and needs must be recognized and accommodated. The NMAH’s mission is “inspiring a broader understanding of our nation and its many peoples. We create opportunities for learning, stimulate imaginations, and present challenging ideas about our country’s past.”

This program is appropriate for students in the 12th grade, whose social studies focus on DC: Government and History. The curriculum’s guiding philosophies outline the goals of this curriculum unit: “Citizens in our society need to understand the current condition of the world and how it got that way and be prepared to act on challenges as they confront us. … For intelligent citizenship, we need a thorough grasp of the daily workings of our own society…” The 12th grade curriculum focuses on a few key themes; one is struggles against political oppression and racial injustice, another is the spread of economic, political or cultural ideas across borders. Both these are very relevant for discussing the racial tensions that existed in the United States in the 1960s, and how these were manifested in Washington, DC. The curriculum also covers other salient aspects of life in the District: an increase of population and its affect on low-income and African American neighborhoods, and the efforts to overcome various forms of discrimination by various civic leaders.

Seniors have plenty of time and life experience, yet tend to be an overlooked sector of society. This project offers them a meaningful way to volunteer their time and share their experiences with a younger generation. This program offers them a way to re-connect with their community, both as conveyors of past history and as educators of the younger generation.

Back to Part 1