Tag Archives: museum studies

M is for Museums

The federal government in the Museum and Library Services Act defined a museum as:  A public or private nonprofit agency or institution organized on a permanent basis for essentially educational or aesthetic purposes, which, utilizing a professional staff, owns or utilizes tangible objects, cares for them, and exhibits them to the public on a regular basis. (from the American Association of Museums)

There are a wide variety of museums: history, natural history, historic buildings, air & space, halls of fame, wax museums and many more.    Some have a specific focus, such as local history or particular artifacts, such as airplanes, while others cover a wider scope, such as American life.

As a public history student, I have learned a great deal about museums; how they operate and how they present historical information and artifacts in a way that engages the visitor.  This weekend I was on a class field studies trip to Dearborn/Detroit, MI, where we visited the Henry Ford/Greenfield Village complex and the Motown Historical Museum.   The verbal interpretation of the tour guides, period-dressed interpreters in the Village and audio-visual media in the Henry Ford museum really made the difference between a ho-hum visit and an extraordinary experience.

The Motown Museum in Detroit, MI is made up of the small house Barry Gordy dubbed Hitsville USA.  The exhibits include a room full of photographs of Barry Gordy and his family, candid photos of all the great Motown artists, an office and the the recoding studio where the classic Motown hits were made.  It is a lot of history in a small space that wouldn’t have meant a whole lot to me without the guided tour, since there weren’t a lot of labels offering the detailed information the guide provided.  Our guide was enthusiastic and entertaining and had us do a few interactive exercises that made our time in the museum quite enjoyable.

The Greenfield Village is part of the Henry Ford complex in Deerborn, MI.  It is a collection of historic buildings from all across America and a few from Europe.  They include The Wright Brothers’ home, one of their cycle shops, and Henry Ford’s childhood home, just to name a few.  While there are labels outside of the buildings to explains what they are, it is the interpreters inside who tell the story and help to bring the building alive by explaining who the occupants were and why they were important.  It was great having them there because they could answer questions in addition to telling the scripted story of the home.

the Henry Ford main museum (that’s right, lower case “t”)  offers a little bit of everything that has to do with American history.  Apparently Henry Ford was an avid collector of all things Americana.  It is much more that a car museum, including exhibits on technology, civil rights, furniture and so much more.  Generally there are good labels and signs describing the items on display, but the museum also offers  a free audio tour via cell phone, and some of the exhibits include audio, video and touchscreens to engage the visitor and offer more information than can be included on a label.

No matter what your interest, there is most likely a museum out there that focuses on it.  Generally museums are affordable (some are free!).  Not all can afford to have extensive A/V interpretation like the Henry Ford, but trained guides and interpreters and a few interactive exhibits can really make for an fun educational experience.  So check out one of your local museums today!

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I is for Interpretation

interpretation n, 1. the act or the result of interpreting, 2. a particular adaptation or version of a work, method, or style, 3. a teaching technique that combines factual with stimulating explanatory information <natural history interpretation program>  [from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary online]

Being a public history major, I have been learning about historical interpretation.  I have a better understanding of  how museums and historical sites interpret items or a site’s history for the general public to understand it.  It is the sort of work that the average museum visitor may take for granted, especially if it is done right.

It takes research and good communication skills, written and oral, depending on the project,  to interpret history correctly and in an understandable and enjoyable way.  While presenting hard facts such as dates is okay, it can also be boring.  You want to present concepts and ideas based on those facts and make your audience think.

I took an exhibit design class last spring where we had the opportunity to research and interpret historical items.  It was challenging and rewarding all at the same time.  My class designed an exhibit at the National Afro-American Museum in Wilburforce, OH.  We used artifacts of African origins, such as baskets, masks and utensils.  These are items that collectors today may use as art decorations in their home or office, but that would have had practical, everyday uses for the African tribes that crafted them.  That was how we tried to connect visitors to the artifacts; we presented the historical story behind the art.  Well-worded signage and labels that came out of our research were our method of communication to the public.

The feedback we received was positive and it was a great overall experience.  Being able to interpret historical item this way and seeing, at the exhibit opening,  that people enjoyed what we did and were learning from it was a wonderful feeling.  Central State University is next door to the museum, and we were told at the exhibit opening that an instructor had already planned on bringing her Fall term class to see our exhibit.  That was, perhaps, the greatest compliment of the day!

Basket display at "Before It Was Art" exhbit - Spring 2010