Boise Art Museum and Participatory Possibilities

Liu Bolin’s work allows for creative ways to gain a certain level of visitor participation.  For instance his “Hiding in the City No. 98 Info Port,” made me wonder if a traditional notice board, as depicted by the artist, could be placed in the center of Gallery 1, or the atrium, where visitors could post comments.  For First Thursdays, maybe the notice board could be worn by a volunteer and could move around the museum, as is almost suggested by Bolin’s work here.

A Top Forty type voting system to rate his pictures by the audience would be easy to organize.  The results could be displayed in the atrium or on the aforementioned “Info Port.” 

Hiding in the City No. 98 Info Port

Liu Bolin 2

Similarly, “Hiding in New York No. 3 Magazine Rack” could give rise to an inexpensive participatory action: place a magazine rack close by the artwork (or in the sculpture court if too disruptive in the current display) and encourage people to photograph themselves as the artist has, and e-mail the photo to a museum website to be displayed and then rated by online voting.  Perhaps it could be made more interactive by allowing guests to choose the magazines to be placed in the rack, rather than having them in the racks already (Guns and Ammo or Cosmopolitan, Harpers or National Review, etc.).

As another classmate remarked, Bolin’s work sometimes has a “Where’s Waldo” quality.  Couldn’t that be used to encourage children to view the pictures: give them a sheet of paper with six of the pictures in black and white and have them find the pictures, search for Bolin and mark on the handout where he is.

Hiding in New York No. 3 Magazine Rack

Liu Bolin 1

Akio Takamori’s “Sleeping Woman in Black Dress” begs for a cot or masseuse table to be placed close by it so visitors could pose like the woman depicted.  Or just to take a nap.  Seriously, it made me want to take a nap and I mean that in a positive sense.

Sleeping Woman in Black Dress

Sleeping woman

I visited the Boise Art Museum in early February and found the best participatory part to be the children’s ARTexperience Gallery, just as a few other of our classmates did.  The two computers in there worked, and quickly responded to input. Based on comments in the comment-book the chalkboard is highly popular (I also cannot resist writing on it!).  There are artistic type puzzles, books, costumes, building blocks, magnetic stickers and a “poem clothes line.”  One of Bolin’s pictures has been cut up and pasted on magnets to create a puzzle.  However, no matter how hard you try you can’t make everybody happy as evidenced below.

Disgruntled 8 YO

Elsewhere in the museum, two computers are available to take a survey, share an opinion, leave a comment or send an e-postcard.  However, neither was working when I visited, and the docent explained that the technology was old and prone to malfunctioning.  At the front desk families can get an interactive pack for younger children that encourages interaction with the exhibits at a level most likely to engage younger children.  Gallery 4 has a video exhibit that showed the artistic process Liu Bolin undergoes to create his works.  Gallery 15 has a VCR/DVD player and several VCRs/DVDs on art that patrons can watch along with many art books for browsing.    A touch screen display in Gallery 13 either was not working properly or was not intended to display information.

Thoughts On The Participatory Museum

I don’t really have one cohesive, overarching thought about this week’s reading. So here’s a collection of my random thoughts while reading!

– Making personal profiles for visitors and taking tools from amusement parks. I wonder if The Wizarding World of Harry Potter changes their visitor’s experience based upon what Hogwarts House they’re sorted into. It’s like J.K. Rowling planned ahead to have a participatory amusement park or something!

– I’m glad Simon mentioned adding a sticker color or label for those who do not want to talk to others about the exhibit. As someone with social anxiety, trying to make small talk with people is extraordinarily difficult for me. This is especially true in situations where I feel like I’m being put on the spot. If a stranger randomly asked me about my opinion on a painting, I’d freeze up and feel uncomfortable. One thing I hate museums doing is designing part of an exhibit where you HAVE to interact with another person in order to proceed through the exhibit.

– You’d be surprised how many of these participatory ideas Starbucks is using to attract repeat business. As a barista I was empowered as a front line employee to give away free drinks & food whenever I felt it was necessary or would help connect with a customer. Now, as a retired barista, I still follow Starbucks’ news, continue to care an abnormal amount about cafe quality, and expect a certain level of customer service when interacting with other businesses. I mean they’ve somehow made me invested in this company even after we officially parted ways. Further, they have both the free membership card featuring custom coupons and a coffee passport book to help engage return visits.

-Simon asks how we might put Illich’s Phonebook of talents into play. While I don’t really have a solution, it would be interesting to post a listing on something like Fiverr offering to pay people $5 to teach you something new. Anyone up for a social experiment?

-One thing I do worry about is that many of Simon’s ideas are require a high level of technical savvy. How many museums are going to have funds and skills to accomplish these ideas? Not to mention upkeep. During my visit to BAM for this class, I noticed that half of the interactive exhibits were broken. “Managing & Sustaining Participation,“ AKA the chapter of broken museum dreams, did little to settle my worries. It just made me even more worried that wonderful institutions full of great information will fall by the wayside due to their inability to keep up.


On Appealing to Creators and Lurkers

The Participatory Museum is perhaps one of the most useful reads we have had so far. I appreciate that Nina Simon has thoroughly developed design models surrounding types/ levels of participation, but also spews out basic brainstorming around each of the types to get the ball rolling for readers and perhaps spawn creativity in translating the case studies and levels of interactivity into their own institutions.

Firstly, I love the idea of “multi-directional content experiences.” It seems common sense that not every museum visitor should have the same experience or take-away from their visit. In fact, even if this is what the institution was aiming for it would be impossible since every visitor has their own unique set of experiences, values, preferences, that shape their understanding. Why, then, is there so often a single narrative and direction in which to follow it? The idea, then, of “opportunities for diverse visitor co-produced experiences” to me reads like a choose-your-own-adventure story. I find it thrilling and democratizing that visitors should shape their own experience in the place, and even more so when Simon considers the ways in which an individual visitor’s actions can shape the experiences of other visitors in the me-to-we vein.

I also appreciated Simon’s different types of web participants and how that could translate to an institution. Not everyone is a creator, some choose to consume media as spectators, other simply like to lurk. Further, these identities should be structured as a continuum, or a fluid identity that changes between moments, platforms, subjects, etc. I also liked that in encouraging increased opportunity for participation in museums, Simon continuously reminds us that we shouldn’t simply replace the rigorous content-driven approach with co-curated level 5 interactivity, but to create opportunities for each type depending on the preference of the users. Another idea we have previously discussed that reappeared in this reading is the idea of dissonance, and productively using it as an opportunity to advance dialogue. My favorite example of dissonance here was the use of profiling/division as a tool, in separating visitors to the Apartheid Museum upon entry. This could be used in institutions with missions related to race, gender, or other types of identity that have been politicized at certain points in time. It needs to be used gently as does create discomfort, but I think the dissonance can be particularly useful in helping visitors understand the discomfort that certain individuals experience(d) daily. I think this goes beyond the passport/nametag approach that tries to encourage identification with historical figures on a surface level.

Like Katrina, I tremendously enjoyed the scaffolding model for encouraging participation in a guided manner. It seems odd that a blank canvas is more daunting than a coloring book page, especially to sophisticated audiences of cultural institutions, but the guided-participation approach is more productive for both the institution and the visitor. I think one aspect in which it is more useful for the institution is that it stays relevant to the theme or learning objective of the exhibit it corresponds to, ensuring that its later incorporation or display (which Simon points out is an integral part of developing the participatory model into the higher stages) remains relevant, educational, dialogic, etc. for the institution and later (perhaps returning) visitors.

I was drawn to the “I like museums” trails, and I think it is an important lesson in curation vs. contribution. While originally the editors/staff created trails surrounding specific interests, visitor types, location, etc., the ability for the museum-going public to contribute their own trails not only creates interactivity between visitors with different interests but contributes to a deeper understanding to the value of institutions to unexpected visitors. If there isn’t an American version of this I think there should be. I also liked the paper approach in museums which is easily replicable. I think one of the insights I gained from Simon is that every participatory initiative need not be an expensive, time-consuming, digital platform, but can be similarly accomplished in simple traditional ways such as brochures of different guided tours depending on your mood, “talk to me about stickers,” a plywood advice booth, physical “punch cards” on a wall, sticky notes, and voting booths. An institutional model I gained a lot of insight from was the idea of different levels or types of memberships, which allow visitors to customize their own interactions with the institution and gain a certain experience from them depending on their desires or interests. I think this could be easily applied to the focus groups and behind-the-scenes experiences Simon mentions, but could also be useful in more “risky” encounters such as the dialogue series we have mentioned in class.


The Participatory Museum is both useful and entertaining. The style of writing is detailed, articulate, and witty. The major themes that jumped out at me throughout the first half of the book were scaffolding, clear communication, trust between visitor and institution, scaffolding, individualization, staff involvement, and scaffolding. Yes, scaffolding. I do love a good bit of scaffolding. “The misguided perception is that it’s more respectful to allow visitors to do their own thing—that the highest-value participatory experiences will emerge from unfettered self-expression. But that idea reflects a misunderstanding of what motivates participation. Visitors don’t want a blank slate for participation. They need well-scaffolded experiences that put their contributions to meaningful use.” Love it. I think this should be a key takeaway from this reading for our group project. Often institutions become overzealous and want everyone to be creators. Many of the best participatory experiences I have had are when I engage with what other visitors have created. I enjoy being a part of the process of creating, but am not prepared or willing to start from scratch. Creating programs that involve all versions of participation from individual intake to active creation is obviously challenging, but ultimately the most rewarding.

I appreciate her focus on audience-centered design and the examples she uses to illustrate it, especially the I Like Museums trails. The idea of creating ‘user profiles’ within the museum and the inherent difficulties intrigued me as someone who worked as a Visitor Services Assistant in a national museum. There was a strange paradox in the directives from on high – we were always counting visitor numbers, but we were supposed to be focused on creating memorable moments for individuals. I thought our maps were pretty good, but now, thinking about really creating individual experiences, they were absolutely useless unless all of your individual desires centered on a highlights tour.

I really like the “me-to-we” design that Simon has created and outlined. I think the most useful aspect of this design is that it provides scaffolding (yes) for developing and for evaluating participatory programs. We can look at or participate in events/exhibitions and begin to understand how they can be scaled up to include stages 3-5, or maintained as is, to engage with the desired audience. I love the idea of creating opportunities for individuals to become a community. After all, museums are public, social institutions and we were just discussing their role in bringing communities together around difficult subjects. The example of Free2choose sounds like an amazing experience, not only as a way to create a true participatory experience at stage 3, but also a great way to tackle difficult issues and at least get people thinking and talking amongst themselves, if not in the larger group.

There was a lot of information to take in and the number and quality of examples Simon uses is extremely helpful in understanding her major points. As a final thought, we should use the example of It Is What It Is as cautionary tale while we design our group project. Our idea for Conversations for Common Grounds is amazing, but the key is the scaffolding. We are taking the best aspect of the Human Library and remixing it with conversations between ‘serious students of…’ (which is a better way of saying ‘expert’) that can then be broken down by individuals in groups. Thinking about this, what is our goal? Is it the dialogue? Having a well-defined goal and designing the specifics backwards (Understanding by Design) may be a great way to continue developing our group project, which, if you can’t tell, I’m super excited about.

Informational Interview with a Consulting Historian

I interviewed Morgen Young of Alder, LLC. Morgen is a consulting historian based in Portland, Oregon.

Morgen received her B.A. in History, with a concentration in Latin American Studies from Furman University in South Carolina. She went on to receive an M.A. in Public History, with a specialization in Historic Preservation from the University of South Carolina. The main impetus to pursuing public history came to Morgen in the form of a job she held for one year between her undergraduate and graduate studies. She worked as the Cultural Research Coordinator for an Alaska Native Corporation in Anchorage, Alaska. While there, Morgen directed an oral history program to document subsistence traditions, and helped manage a language preservation project. In hindsight, Morgen realizes that that position gave her valuable experience working in the capacity of public historian as well as consulting historian. That experience convinced her to go to graduate school, where she initially enrolled in a traditional history M.A./Ph.D. program. Realizing she didn’t want to teach, she switched to the Public History program by the end of the first semester.

Morgen claims she owes her post-graduate success to being obstinate. Upon finishing grad studies she moved to Portland, and unable to find paid or even voluntary work, she convinced her former employer in Alaska to hire her on a freelance basis for a project. From there, she says, she “registered a business and slowly, but surely began acquiring clients. Now I work full time as a consulting historian.”

Alder, LLC provides a variety of services, from researching house, company, community, and family histories; working in preservation through National Register of Historic Places nominations and Oregon Special Assessment applications; conducting and transcribing oral histories; developing and curating exhibits and museums; writing and editing reports, articles, digital and web content, and marketing materials; educational walking tours, lectures, and workshops; as well as providing photography. Because of this broad array of services, Morgen doesn’t really have a “typical day on the job.” Some days she meets with clients, some days she conducts research in both physical archives and by utilizing digital resources, and some days she focuses on writing content. Morgen also noted the importance of devoting “a fair amount of time” to project management, considering that “on any given day, I’m focusing on anywhere from two to ten projects.” Because of the solitary nature of her work (she is the sole employee of her business), Morgen says her favorite part of her work is working directly with community members. She says that any opportunity to work directly with people is both wonderful and rewarding.

Morgen notes that her skills as a good public historian, namely research, interpretation, and educating outside of a traditional classroom setting have prepared her for a wide variety of work. While she doesn’t have specific technical skills in the digital aspects, she can populate an existing website with her content and appreciates the advantages of digital platforms and works with web designers to achieve them. She has experienced an ability to reach new audiences and interact with multiple generations, through web platforms and social media marketing, and by combining both physical and digital components.

As a last bit of advice, Morgen recommends that young public historians engage with the National Council on Public History. She has been involved since grad school and found it helpful when seeking employment and volunteer opportunities. She has served as a Co-Chair of the NCPH Consultant’s Committee, and is currently a candidate to serve on the Board of Directors.

* I learned about Morgen’s work through her Uprooted Exhibit, which is currently on display at the Minidoka County Historical Society Museum in Rupert. See the project website here:

Career Talk With The Barefoot Genealogist

During RootsTech 2015, I had the privilege of talking with Crista Cowan about her job as a Corporate Genealogist for Ancestry.

Crista majored in business management during college, as she was unaware that her passion for family history could be transformed into a career. After graduation, she took a position in LA as a software support manager. On the side, she continued learning more and more about genealogical research. Eventually, her hobby transformed into a career. She opened her own genealogy business and never looked back.

A little over ten years later, Crista was hired by Ancestry to assist both in research and in growing their brand. Some of her projects as a corporate genealogist and PR guru include recording a series of YouTube videos as the Barefoot Genealogist and doing behind the scenes research for TLC’s Who Do You Think You Are? She finds the work extremely fulfilling and even gets enough autonomy to continue researching her own family while on the clock. This helps Crista stay up to date on all the new resources, techniques, and technologies available in her field.

Technology has made staying up to date in genealogy a difficult task. In fact, Crista believes that education is the biggest issue in her field right now. There is a great challenge in trying to help the public find their ancestors on top of teaching them how to use the new tools and documents as they become available. There is simply too much happening, too quickly.

However, technology has also helped open up family history to new audiences. Crista recalled that many of the people she interacted with ten years ago were American women over the age of 55. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to receive e-mail from a teenager or a European asking for assistance in their research.

Crista mentioned that there are two main paths for those who are looking to make a career in genealogy. For those who enjoy academia, the first route requires attending a Family History program at a university. The largest of these programs is stationed in nearby Provo at Brigham Young University.

As Crista’s career path demonstrates, there are still great opportunities in the field of family history that do not require a formal degree. Getting in the door as a self taught genealogist requires becoming ingrained in the family history community. Typically, this is done by attending conferences such as RootsTech or by attending intensive genealogical institutes.

Crista has learned a plethora of information from these genealogical institutes. In fact, when she first began taking on clients she ran into a little turbulence when many of her clients came to her asking about their Jewish ancestry. At the time she had no experience tracing Jewish lineages, but by attending an institute or two and asking her cohorts, she was able to answer her client’s questions. Eventually, she gained enough skill in researching Jewish families that it has become one of her areas of expertise.

There is decent money to be made as a genealogist. The amount a professional genealogist will charge their clients depends on the intensity of the work completed. For fulfilling simple requests, which only require a quick visit to an archive to obtain a document unavailable on the web, most genealogists charge about $15 per request. Genealogists working in a niche part of family history can charge upwards of $150. An example of a niche genealogist would be an individual who have the ability to read and access documents in an uncommon foreign language.

Crista’s job is funded through Ancestry subscriptions, but most independent genealogists run their own businesses and earn their wages through completing freelance research for clients.

A big thank you to Crista for granting me an interview! I learned a lot and have even begun looking into upcoming genealogical institutes.

Would I participate?

As I read The Participatory Museum, I decided to approach it through the eyes of a visitor instead of a museum staff member. I have no experience working in a museum and I am not sure that I will ever end up in one (although it is certainly not off the table). So I have framed my reactions as a participant rather than an administrator. Would I participate/enjoy/find fulfillment in Simon’s suggestions or not? Below are the suggestions that I found most engaging and most offensive.

I would participate:

  • “Becoming” a Character – Placing myself in the shoes of someone/thing within the exhibit is an excellent way to engage with the material, but not have to get too personal. I loved the idea of choosing a Greek mythological character in the Hero exhibit. I still have my Holocaust museum passport (yes, I kept it) from 15 years ago, because it made such an indelible mark on me.
  • Marking enjoyable exhibits in order to receive a personal recommendation – I love Pandora, Netflix, Goodreads and any other network that will point me in the direction of new and exciting finds. I think most people do as well.
  • Write a postcard home to myself – I still have my DARE letter that I wrote to myself when I was in 6th grade, but did not receive until I was a senior in high school. Communicating with your past self (even if only a few days old) is a powerful reminder of what you found important and what you have learned since.
  • PostSecret style Q&A- I love the power of anonymity, both for my own participation and in reading other people’s answers.  This type of interaction allows me to not only leave behind a piece of myself for future visitors, but to also connect with the larger social/political/historical question. I think it is really powerful.
  • A photo story of my participation – I liked the idea of completing some task with my group, having it documented, and then later going back to narrate the story. I think that is a particularly powerful tool for families, because it not only creates a memento of their experience, but also encourages them to fully engage with an exhibit (i.e. “Let’s do our best! This will be documented!”)

I would not participate:

  • Guided Tours – I find these annoying, slow, and disingenuous. Shuffling along in a crowd is not my idea of higher level thinking or engagement.
  • “Talk to me about…” stickers on my back – I like to have intelligent conversations with diverse people. I would love to have discussions with strangers about difficult exhibits that we were all visiting. However, I have no interest in having strangers approach me in a historical museum to talk about my love of cooking.
  • Write your own label – While I find this suggestion funny and I would certainly enjoy it for purely entertaining value, I do not know how critically it would engage me. It is creative, absolutely. But I don’t know that it would add to my learning experience.

Overall, I would feel more comfortable participating in activities that allow me to be heard and feel like I am a part of the museum, but do not ask me to get too personal. I enjoy discourse with strangers, but not in a forced manner. I can also appreciate novelty and variety, but I would like to see a clear purpose for my endeavors. My participatory experiences in museums should be interesting, yet meaningful. I know that these are my personal reactions, but I would guess that many people would at least share my disdain for getting too personal and would want their time and effort to be valuable.

Proving Your Worth – the Museum Educator’s Story

The role of formal education departments and programs in museums is rapidly expanding as these institutions continue to realize their duty to serve the public in this manner. As the Education Outreach Coordinator for the Idaho State History Museum, Ellen Morfit knows this, and is working with the rest of the Education Department (Kurt Zwolfer), to continue to improve the museum’s education programs.

Ellen’s journey to the Idaho State History Museum (ISHM) begins with a passion for history and a desire to work in museums. When she moved to New York, she took the opportunity to begin volunteering with the Brooklyn Historic Museum and the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens and soon decided to go all in and obtain a degree in Museum Education from the prestigious Bank Street College of Education. Her program included weekly museum visits, six weeks of student teaching (she also obtained a teaching certification), and a semester-long internship with a local museum. Ellen was determined to work at an art museum – the MET in particular – but her advisor refused. She insisted Ellen apply for an internship with the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Her advisor won. It was the perfect fit. During her internship, Ellen was able to gain experience in visitor evaluations, program development, and teaching. One of the programs she developed is still running and engages visitors of all ages in discussions on sweatshops, labor movements, and immigrant experiences. Ellen recalls, “When I worked at the Tenement museum, it was on the verge of exploding into something amazing…I mean it was amazing, but they, since I left there, and that was twelve years ago, they’ve just blossomed.” The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is now part of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience and is a leader in the field for integrating the past and the present and engaging visitors in dialogue around difficult and important issues.

Fast forward to the present and Ellen is in her third year at ISHM. She began by volunteering for the museum while she was a stay-at-home mom raising her daughter and helping her parents. After eight years of volunteering and paid summer program work, Ellen was offered the opportunity to take and shape a part-time position running the outreach program for the museum. In discussing her different experiences in education programs, Ellen highlighted the importance of the time students are in the museum and participating in individual programs. In order to truly engage with the subject, Ellen would like to see the museum’s current twenty-minute programs extended to 45 minutes, in a manner similar to those now offered by the Discovery Center. This would allow the students to engage with the material on a more meaningful level instead of feeling like a “‘dog and pony’ show, because you don’t have the time…you have to somehow figure out how you can make those twenty minutes worthwhile for the kids.” Ellen is also working on expanding the outreach program by incorporating different technologies, such as live streaming lessons, in order to serve students across the state. While Ellen and I did not get a chance to discuss this, the live streaming would not help students engage with the actual objects often used in museum programs, however, many of these students have not had the chance to engage with the museum at all so this is certainly an improvement.

Ellen recognized the value of her experience at Bank Street in light of one of the current issue in the field of museum education – museum studies degree or museum education degree and the pursuit of a job. Ellen pointed out that her program provided basic overviews for all areas of museum work, but focused on education. Museum studies programs do the same, but lack the specific focus or ‘this is where I’m going’ factor. Many open positions require an education degree of some sort and/or teaching experience. Advice from Ellen for those entering the field includes involvement in social media of all forms and continued professional development and education. While a drawback of living in a smaller city, such as Boise, has been a lack of resources for such development, Ellen regularly participates in webinars by the American Association of Museums and maintains contacts with museum friends back East. Ellen believes educators should enjoy working with children, be team players, be a resource for teachers, be flexible, be willing to learn, have a solid sense of humor, and did she mention enjoy working with children?

Ellen’s Bank Street professor once told her, “As an educator, you’re going to have to continue to prove your worth, over and over again.” That was over a decade ago. Many museums recognize the value of well-trained, experienced educators and the role they play in fulfilling the social contract museums have with the public. As the field of museum education continues to grow in importance, educators must remember their purpose is to support and nurture life-long learners.

The Participatory Museum

The Participatory Museum, Nina Simon
MLM Reflections

Oh, how I wish I had read this book years ago for interpretive work and the museum projects I have been involved in! I know Simon is a consultant, and the book is part of her larger business, but her advice stands tall when the real-life case studies demonstrate the principles Simon is professing.

I agree with Simon’s perspective that traditional techniques and spaces need not be thrown out the window totally – just follow her “and” argument! Participatory elements can add to the structure and not be an exclusionary “or” prospect. Her thoughts about information flow “between,” and not “to” participants was also solid. Lastly, her advice follows earlier readings remind us that it’s always better to speak “with” your audiences, not “to,” which ultimately leads to more memorable experiences that may encourage return visits and solid supporters of your institution.

I couldn’t help think of my beloved little Basque Museum and opportunities for increasing participation during Jaialdi, with Basques and non-Basques alike. I also considered advice I received from Jeff Johns during our public history career interview a lot more cogently. A few of Simon’s points especially resonated with me:

– “Scaffolding”
This made so much sense. It’s so important to provide sideboards – my word, (she says “constraints,” which I didn’t like). These help people function within reasonable bounds, and may actually encourage creativity and interaction. It can also prohibit mass confusion with participants by adding clarity of purpose. Of course, to scaffold means to plan, not just fly off with first ideas without vetting amongst a diverse planning group to find the right sideboards.

– Thanks, follow-up, and “perks”
This should be a matter of fact, but her thoughts about staff thanking visitors after their visits, and following-up somehow with personal touches was simple but really relevant. Especially today, with so much emphasis on the bottom dollar, numbers of attendees, and fiscal security, maybe it’s time to just get back to basics: we want you to visit, we want you to participate and join with us, we value you, and by the way – thank you. This is setting expectations that we want you back, and it may be a good way to follow-up which would encourage repeat visitation. The time-delayed cards idea was pretty good, and I appreciated her comment that you can not “delete” a mailed card as easily as an online follow-up. Regardless, how you get personal information for visitors (email or street address) can be difficult – and it can reach far into privacy issues. What do you all think about incentivizing visitorship? Are perks from punch cards, special rates, loyalty programs, “frequent flyers,” good to encourage visits? (They sure work for commercial ventures!) Maybe we need to approach public history more like BUSINESS, with customer satisfaction-type goals and efforts?

– “Creators and Consumers”
Participation inequality is not really the way I would have described this, but the thought that we need to address possible barriers to projects upfront, realizing some will be on board 100% with participating and some will not, so intermediate, balanced approaches are the best.

– “Me to We”
Another very simple, but so true concept! Designing meaningful experiences, personalized so as to connect with individuals but yet reinforcing a community experience is the intended outcome. How it’s done requires careful thought, again.
I desperately want to do a take-off of the “Shards of Happiness” Dutch Princessof ceramics exhibit! That was very cool, so “me to we,” participatory on many levels.

I was very uncomfortable with this section…maybe I am hyper-sensitive to commercial tracking online or by businesses, but the thought of a museum tracking how often I visited, how much I spent in their gift shop, and then ask me to wear an identity ID/badge/color-keyed card to single me out or group me in a larger group was not something I would ever advocate. I think if people want to engage with one another, there are many other valid ways to encourage this– and seemingly less invasive. I also do not support the Apartheid “Two Doors” approach – singling out very personal beliefs can lead not to dialogue, but uncomfortable experiences. Although, the Facing Mars exhibit participation didn’t seem to be as invasive – topic areas are critical. Self-identification. This made me think more about how thoughtful we must be in setting up our group “Common Grounds” community conversation.

Cell phones, sticky-notes, and “simple” tools versus flashy, expensive exhibit design, technology and social networking
If we are using simple objects almost universally, let’s use them in the participation! Simplicity sometimes connects with more people, I think. It’s less exclusive. I keep thinking about Jeff Johns, who led million-dollar projects to low-budget projects, noting that the public often does not want the glitter – they just want good experiences. Pencils and crayons, anyone??? Using common tools, though, including social networking, can help lay out guidelines, provide platforms, and share thoughts (without encroaching on intellectual property). I a not sure I agree with her “power to promote” through these platforms, and that it is a way to present preferred behavior. Anonymity of social media is a concern – it can prompt negative actions as much as present positive values. Again, balance.

Back to the Drawing Board
Exploratorium redesign of project – yes! If it does not work , do it again or differently, if you can. Question: Do comment boards really help with feedback? Can negative information really influence re-design? Budgets, staff time, technology all seem to get in the way of genuine responses: we are moving too fast, too superficially.

Pg 191 – chart is really good.

My favorite case studies:
Shards of Happiness
Denver posters
Adirondack Wild Center Climate Conference
Harrah’s loyalty program – ahem, yes
Worcester City Museum Top 40
Iraq conversation with bombed-out car
Brooklyn Museum 1stFans

Last Thoughts
I liked the “contributory, collaborative, co-creative and hosted” sections.
This was full of gems, even in skim mode.
Relevance: Where would our Common Grounds conversation night fall?
Hosted? Co-creative? Collaborative? Contributory?
And what can we add to that experience based on Simon’s book?
I think we definitely need a visual aspect of it beyond the video that night as documentation…
-What about a follow-up photo exhibit across town?
-Key questions for each table posted across town before the night, as banners or pop-up type “tags” to pique curiosity?
-What if we got businesses to join us?

Interview with Jeff Johns

Jeff Johns
Interview Conducted 1/23/15 by Meggan Laxalt Mackey

I chose to interview Jeff Johns as a public history professional because of his diverse public history career. Jeff used the words “interdisciplinary, intergenerational, and creative” throughout our interview, but “collaboration” was his main message. He also reminded me that rough spots will always occur in anyone’s career, so it’s important to keep moving forward, learn from the experience(s), and don’t look back. Jeff also credited mentors and colleagues from previous workplaces who helped him choose – and survive – this field. It was refreshing to hear Jeff speak so highly of those he worked with to bring public history to others, and those who helped shape his public history career: we never do this alone. That was my final take-home message from Jeff.

• Education
Jeff is an Idaho native, and chose Boise State University at a time that public history was beginning to gain ground nationally. He graduated with a BA in History in 1998, and earned his MA in Museum Studies from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, in 2001.

• Basque Museum & Cultural Center, Boise, Idaho. Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, 2001-2006.
Jeff walked out of grad school and into this job. He upgraded this small cultural museum’s collections by implementing an electronic system that digitized artifacts, archives, audio and photo collections, which made it a lot easier for users to conduct research. He worked with the primary museum space gallery, including temperature and lighting filtration, exhibit design, and special events. Jeff’s primary accomplishment was as lead curator of the “Cyrus Jacobs-Uberuaga Boardinghouse,” an ambitious, grant-funded funded historic preservation project of the small boardinghouse on Boise’s Grove Street, with period-authentic recreation inside of a boardinghouse and family residence. He was responsible for historical research; conservation; curatorial oversight; researching and acquiring furnishings, wallpapers, lighting, props, heat/light, security system, interpretation; and community outreach. The CJU project included community involvement with the archaeological dig on museum grounds, where locals and passers-by were able to learn about history and archaeology “real-time.” Jeff coordinated with SHPO and archaeologists on the dig and structural components of the house restoration, The CJU Project was a Boise masterpiece, and the adjacent museum’s attendance, education programs, language classes, and gift shop sales expanded greatly. This was a great first curatorial for Jeff. Each aspect of this position was complex, but an opportunity to gain experience.

• American Airlines’ C.R. Smith Museum (CRSM), Fort Worth, Texas. Curator and Corporate Historian, 2006-2009.
In 2006, American was the largest and oldest U.S. airline, with the biggest training center in the world and many aircraft on-site, but it had an outdated aviation museum. After 911, the airlines placed security measures on museum grounds, and its 75,000 visitors per year plummeted to 9,000. American Airlines’ response was to invest $1.5 million in a complete museum make-over. This position was much more complex than the Basque curation job, with a huge budget, a supervisory role, and a requirement to learn interactive audio and digital skills, and digital film remastering. When Jeff opened the new “An American Journey” museum experience, it was a wild success. Its 7,000 square feet of exhibit space was filled with participatory elements directed mostly at children, interactive AV stations, fresh graphics and interpretive panels, and an IMAX- style theatre in the round (110 seats) with a newly edited, digitized film, “Spirit of American.” As American’s corporate historian, he managed the museum’s artifact collections, archives, and films. “Life-long Learner” programs were directed at multiple age groups, including seniors, and family/kid programs, with multidisciplinary art, science, and history experiences. CRSM engaged in social media efforts, TV marketing, and various tourist industry tactics to further publicize the revamped museum. The net result was that by 2009, CRSM visitorship was on its way upward once again, with 50,000 visitors a year.

Mayor’s Aerospace Museum Task Force. Member, 2007-2009.
Due to the great success at American Airlines, the City of Fort Worth began to dream big. Jeff served on the Mayor’s Aerospace Museum Task Force, a committee to determine the feasibility of developing a world-class aerospace museum. The city hired a consultant to work the committee to develop a master strategic plan, and by 2009 Jeff was named the Fort Worth Air & Space Museum Executive Director.

Fort Worth Air & Space Museum. Executive Director, 2009-2011.
Jeff’s new job was to plan, design, and fabricate a $3-million-dollar, 10,000-square-foot exhibition about the evolution of the aerospace industry of North Texas. It was thought that this “test” exhibit would whet the public’s appetite, and encourage further funding of a $115-million-dollar museum that would see one million visitors a year. The exhibit, “When Dreams Defy Gravity,” included an experimental science lab, aircraft flight simulators, creative art stations, HD theatre, and a B36 plane communications ride. Participatory elements included hands-on stations to “out-gun” Rosie the Riveter, a Noise Pollution Lab to compare F18 engine noise to that of a B757, and other cool things. The Museum Board consulting firm and the city advocated for the feasibility of the larger museum development, but the economic climate was not right. Key potential funders withdrew their financial support, and the city lost its pledged investment. The additional resources needed to move further were not realized, and the entire project was scrapped. Careers can have unfortunate occurrences, and this truly was a major heartbreak for Jeff.

Minnesota Historical Society’s Forest History Center. Historical Site Director, 2011-present.
This unique 170-acre environmental history and learning center is in Minnesota’s Northwoods. It has public history programs, living history tours, and field trips, a Visitor Center, classroom, replica logging camp, library, theatre, gift shop, and a1930s U.S. Forest Service cabin. The innovative in-and-outdoors “Into the Woods” program targets Native American Tribes and Norwegian groups, with art/artisan/writing workshops, dogsledding, Shakespeare plays and concerts, and wildlife/bird presentations. To pull this off, the FHC collaborated with locals and state/federal/city organizations. The FHC realized a 36% increase in overall attendance, a 162% increase from this site for membership in the Minnesota Historical Society, and a $50K appropriation from the State Legislature. The FHC plans to experiment more with adventure-based, multidisciplinary environmental learning experiences that tie history to the outdoors.

On what type of education or experience should one have for public history
“During my academic pursuits I learned of the ideals and philosophies of public history and museology. Yet learning how to increase the likelihood of success with audiences and developing/delivering projects out in the field has taken me on an odyssey that often seems quite out of sync with those ideals and philosophies. While I think my education was valuable, I believe my real education has taken place in trying to survive professionally during the last 14 years. … Savor the journey and then go and tackle some amazing projects.”

On why we need to do public history differently
In the U.S., less than 10% of total museum-going audience attend history museums.
Most visitors go only once — or return with relatives when visiting.
Many experiences are boring, static, didactic, text-heavy labels, with no engagement because there is no personal connections.

History is competing with these: more engaging, immersive and technology-based:
1. Science/STEM; 2. Art; 3. Zoos and Aquariums. To change this: make history relevant and exciting to visitors.
– Keep current with technology
– Develop a diverse “customer base” (locals AND other visitors)
– Do community outreach programs
– Make it interdisciplinary and intergenerational
– Work in non-profit world: budgets, small circles, groupthink
– Boards of Director/manager/staff relationships with the community
– Integrating collections and archives appropriately
– Assess reactions from visitors honestly – be willing to change if didn’t work
– Public access: transportation, can your visitor afford it? physical/mental challenges

On defeat, frustration, the need to move forward
“I had to admit defeat occasionally – this paved way for later successful outcomes for entire projects.”

On doing history for the public
“Become an opportunist. Trust your gut – your intuition. Try things out to see if they work – if not figure out why – and try something else, or the same again over time.”

“Never ask for permission – ask for forgiveness later.”

“Push it…gotta push the envelope. We can’t afford to be traditional anymore. Use educational programming everywhere – all places.”

“Be diverse. Offer unique and different ways to learn. Must be inspiring and transformative. Constantly adapt to change and create change…offer what the public wants, need to find ways to support them. With today’s instant information, don’t over-analyze issues, just focus on experiences.”

“Outreach is critical – advertise and connect with communities. You must have public buy-in and participation. Cross-marketing, sponsors, creative outreach campaigns.”

“There is high competition for ‘entertainment dollars.’ Make history more like entertainment – engaging others, participation, interactive, engaging. Think out of the box with creativity. Multi-disciplinary: use everything to support history – and active!
art, music, science, plays, chemistry, match, ecology, energy, biology, wildlife, play, outdoor experiences, sensory. Try to have something for everyone, and change things up, be new and interesting.”

“How does the public perceive history and historians? That is key to visitorship. You must have ownership in one’s community, or if a visitor, ownership in the issues.”

On staffs and staffing, partner collaboration
“Leverage staff diversity and collaboration…create synergy with others, use frequent communication, no withholding.”

“Challenge of competent staff – finding people to do a good job. Senior staffs now are often 20+ yrs – don’t like change, not innovative, out of energy, but younger staff can be too confident, lacking in people skills and communication.”

“Be careful with investments and contracting… The public often does not want polish, they just want an experience, education. And remember…technology is good, but access, wi-fi, economics, who can use technology is still an issue in many areas and with some demographics.”

“Focus on nontraditional groups: vision impaired, hearing impaired, refugee cultures, languages, dyslexia…good history can be transformative for them.”

On strategic planning
“After three major efforts, it is best to plan minimally so adjustments can be made. Take risks and test your ideas out first – then plunge. Don’t pay high dollars for consultant firms: plans often sit on shelves, take too long, and are too costly to implement, mostly because there are good chances those advisors are people outside your spectrum who do not know truly your audience or benefactors.”