I just came back from a week long vacation in Seattle. While I was there I visited as many museums as possible – with an emphasis on history, of course. Sometimes the best research is done in person! Below is a list (in no particular order) of things I learned, or trends that were confirmed, from my trip. I also took lots and lots of photos of these museums – I promise to post a link to them later.
1.) Rack cards – particularly strategically placed – do a great job of getting out word about your museum. At hotels, information desks, the airport, etc. were a sea of rack cards and brochures. Because I’m a marketing nerd, I collect these. But I think even the average person finds up to date (and well-designed) information helpful when deciding whether or not to visit a museum. Coupons on a rack card or in a brochure don’t hurt, either.
2.) Explaining the rules can make them seem less harsh. At the Experience Music Project/Sci-Fi Museum (EMP), labels outside exhibits asked visitors to keep food/drink outside and to refrain from taking flash photos. Ok, a standard sign. BUT, immediately following the “no” was a clear statement: “for the protection of the artifacts.” As a visitor, I felt more at ease after seeing/hearing the explanation for the rules.
3.) QR Codes are not too cool for history museums. The Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) had QR codes all over the place. The first was at the front desk, inviting visitors to become a fan on Facebook. Other codes appeared throughout the gallery, offering more information about artifacts, history, or even the museum’s upcoming move. It made me wish I had a smartphone.
4.) Low tech or hi-tech, interactives are king! EMP unsurprisingly had some very cool hi-tech interactives: touch screen timelines, virtual reality cameras. Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park had some low tech interactives: embossing stations, pencil rubbings, a wheel of fortune style wheel. But regardless, I found myself trying and liking the interactives I encountered. In some ways, the low tech interactives were better because there was no technology to be frustrated with.
5.) Always have branded items in the store. This was actually a frustration I had. As a visitor, there are 2 items I tend to look for: either a magnet or a lapel pin that either shows the museum, its logo, an artifact, or an exhibit. I understand all places won’t have all things, but there were some places where I had a hard time finding anything branded at all in the store. The Seattle Aquarium had a variety of branded items. I ended up with some cute magnets and clever postcards. I like taking away a souvenir other than a photograph I have taken, but at some places I had to leave empty-handed.
6.) Museums are stronger with local community support. Museums like the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian American Experience only exist because of a strong community that supports it. The Wing Luke is now in a beautiful, historic building – its third home since its founding. Community support isn’t just monetary – it can also be seen in the artifacts. The Bainbridge Island Historical Museum and MOHAI were filled with a wide variety of really cool artifacts. The strength of their collection was a result from a good relationship with the local community.
7.) Even small history museums can make a big impact. The best example of this is the Bainbridge Museum. It’s a small museum on an island with about 23,000 inhabitants. They have a small staff but a strong volunteer core. A temporary exhibit that blew me away was about Japanese interment and Manzanar through the lens of Ansel Adams. The museum also had awards displayed from the Western Museums Association as recent as this year, and even one from the American Association of Museums from 2008. According to their 2010 annual report, this small museum in this tiny community has over 700 members – which is nearly double what the museum I work for can claim in membership, in a much larger community. While there are various factors that have aided their success, regardless it gives me hope that the little history museum I work for can have a big impact, too!
The best part about being a museum nerd is that every place I visit is an opportunity to learn something new.