Earlier this month, I headed to Manassas, VA to work with a client. Obviously, I couldn’t fly into DC and not visit a few museums! Over the years, I’ve probably visited DC more than any other city, but it’s been 5 years since my last visit. On previous visits, I was inspired simply by being in amazing historic spaces. But on this visit, I found some exhibit design elements to be truly inspiring. Even better, they’re the type of things you could easily incorporate into your own museum.
Idea #1: Paint the chairs green.
The Carlyle House wasn’t on my list. But I was wandering around Alexandria my first afternoon–it was too late to make it to downtown and the Smithsonian, and it caught my eye. It was a great historic house tour, including one of my favorite house museum elements–cut-aways to see how the house was built and changed over time.
They also did a great job of acknowledging the enslaved past–and pointing out areas (their intro video) where some of the history hadn’t been fully updated yet.
But it was a much smaller touch that totally blew my mind. As they were going through general introductions, they said “In each room, there’ s a chair painted green. You’re welcome to take a seat there if you need a break.” No ropes. No signs. Just bright green paint. And in the area where everyone was supposed to take a seat? All green. Brilliant! And so easy!
Idea #2: Intentionally create space for conversation.
This isn’t a new idea, but there were a few great examples at the National Museum of American History. Some of it was physical. This great Z-shaped bench was in the Girlhood exhibit. It also included a flip book of questions.
I also spied these teens at a kiosk in the Democracy exhibit. They were there for at least 10 minutes, actively debating the issues that faced the first generation of Americans. Isn’t it nice to see digital interactives work? Even better, there weren’t any adults around “making” them do it. I ran into them again, and they were still actively chatting about the exhibit. It made my museum educator heart sing.
But back to the Girlhood exhibit. While I haven’t ever sat down and made a list of my favorite exhibits, I do know this one would be on it. It was boldly political–asking tough questions and not necessarily providing an answer. Diverse stories were beautifully woven throughout. The design was bright and colorful–but also thoughtful. Since it was organized by theme, it was easier to have generations talk to each other about the various themes. And they did! There was chatter everywhere in this exhibit. Because so many of labels asked questions, people were answering them in conversations with friends and strangers.
Towards the end of my visit, I made my way into some of the exhibit spaces that haven’t been touched in a long time. They were eerily silent. It was a stark contrast to other spaces in the museum, and a reminder about how important good exhibit design is to spark conversation.
Idea #3: History is relevant. And it’s ok to say that out loud.
Scattered throughout NMAH were these signs.
Such a great way to address current events. I would love to know how many people have sent messages, but just seeing this level of transparency at a place like the Smithsonian was wonderful. In this time of political turmoil, when so many museums are heavily dependent on public funding, it’s hard to balance the desire to take a stand with the reality of that action putting the organization at risk. Seeing this was heartening.
Idea #4: Curvy is good!
A few days after returning from DC, I was in Fort Worth with some friends. One of them is a huge fan of the tv show 1883, and there was a special exhibit at the National Cowgirl Museum. It’s been several years since I’ve been there, and they have completely transformed that space. All three of us are museum people, and we were all gushing about their casework. Hardly any straight lines anywhere, and it was a delight! I have no idea where they got these cases, but we really admired the flexibility–and those curves were just so pleasing to the eye, as well as setting the pact to explore.
We also loved this creative way to display a very famous gun.
Idea #5: Make volunteering accessible.
I wasn’t expecting to enjoy the Udvar-Hazy Center as much as I did. Planes don’t usually get me excited. But there were so many! And they were so big! I also saw the most brilliant way of making volunteering accessible. At several key spots, there were screens set up where visitors could chat with a volunteer–who was at their home on zoom. An obvious response to the pandemic and the needs of elderly volunteers, but I just loved this so much and hope they continue it. Such a great way to use technology! A friend heard staff talk about this project on a webinar, and staff mentioned some of the technology challenges (some enlisted grandchildren to help them set up the equipment!), but the challenge was well worth it.
Also, I had no idea the Enola Gay was on display here. Seeing it stopped me in my tracks. Like most museum students of a certain age, I read a lot of articles about the controversary around the original exhibit design. The label is incredibly simple and straight forward. Which is both enough and not nearly enough.
There were other magical museum moments, including a great visit to the FUTURES exhibit in the Arts and Industries Building (such a great building!).
I also made a quick visit to the Manassas Battlefield, because I would have lost my history nerd credentials if I didn’t. Alas, it was 50 degrees and rainy so I didn’t spend too much time there exploring.
Finally, I randomly ended up on a tour of the Surratt House with Civil War Historian Extraordinaire James McPherson. Me, who never recognizes celebrities, figured that one out through a combination of eavesdropping, timing, and a quick google search for a picture. I alerted the staff, and they had a lovely chat–and my friend Veronica (the director) got a picture.
Odds are good that I’ll be in the DC area a few more times as I continue working with my client. What should I see on my next trip?