Museumness

16 Feb

Since this is African American History Month, I decided to visit the Indiana Historical Society and the Indiana State Museum to evaluate their digital environments in respect to Indiana’s African American history. For this project, I defined digital environment as web sites, social media and gallery multi-media presentations. I evaluated the permanent exhibits, relevant rotating exhibits, special events, gallery interactives, online collections databases and social media presence.  Both sites have embraced the digital world and are innovators in their fields. These are large museums with rich digital environments so this review will be cursory, but more in-depth review would be a potentially fruitful line of research.

The Indiana Historical Society, self proclaimed as “Indiana’s Storyteller,” is a private not-for profit, whose mission is “connecting people to the past by collecting, preserving and sharing the state’s history.”  The Indiana Historical Society operates a research library and presents media-rich visitor experiences in their museum galleries, called the Indiana Experience.  Their primary audience is the residents of the state of Indiana, as well as scholars and Indianapolis visitors. In addition to individuals, they provide technical assistance to local historical societies.  The organization was founded in 1830 but moved to the current site in 1999.   In 2009, they renovated and expanded the building reopening it as the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History Center.  The History Center, with the new Indiana Experience, represents a significant departure from their past offerings, representing “a new way to live history.”[1]

The Indiana State Museum is a partnership between a not-for-profit and the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites, which   “brings the best of the museum world to Indiana.” The museum is located in White River State Park and comprised of three floors of galleries telling the story of Indiana as well as changing exhibits.  The museum explores not only history, but also art, science. The primary audiences is the residents of the state of Indiana, with 2009visitation totaling 659,004 visitors. The museum has an emphasis on educating students with 60,000 K-12 students each year, particularly focusing on 4th grade Indiana History students.

Both institutions have a similar joint conservation and educational mission. As Angeliki Antoniou, George Lepouras and Costas Vassilakis examined in “A methodology for the design of online exhibitions,” museum organizations are charged with creating “exhibitions that offer an educational and at the same time enjoyable experience.”  Studies on general museum visitors report that they visit museums for “learning, together with entertainment and socialization.”[2]  In the case of these two museums, located basically across the street from each other, this can lead to easy comparisons of the physical and digital environments, as well as potential confusion by the public on the identity of the museums. While I do not have access to scientific data on these museums, speaking with five visitors at both museums on February 11, 2012 I found that none of the visitors saw the differentiation between the museums as Indiana State Museum Imax Theatre (5), ISM as Science Museum (3), IHS as government run, and unknown (2). The IMAX theatre as a digital environment was well known by visitors and was perceived as related to the science mission.  While this is in no means a scientific study, it suggests that digital presentations styles are important to the way the public views these sites.  This is consistent with the concept of “museumness,” or the “way people define a physical or virtual space seems to have clear implications on learning.” While the ideas can be formed in the physical space, they have implications for the digital environments which I will discuss further below.[3]

The main exhibits, called the Indiana Experience. , were “born digital” with interactives and digital environments planned from the outset. In the “Destination Indiana,” gallery, the visitor is able to customize her experience, with a special program on the African American experience in Indiana.  The Cole Porter Room is an immersive experience, placing you inside the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, with a professional digital presentation about the man and his music.  In the “You Are There” gallery, visitors are immersed in history in an environment that recreates scenes from the past in digital and physical form.  Additional digital materials surround the exhibit, along with more in-depth information on the topic and the creation of the exhibit online.  Currently, the exhibit has an African American theme, 1939: Healing Bodies, Changing Minds the exhibit focuses on a visit to the Dr Harvey Middleton, highlighting medicine and race, issues not often covered in museums.  The last two exhibits on healthcare related subjects have allowed the museum to host community events to continue the discussions. [4] The museum is doing an innovative online contest related to Black History Month, the Indiana Black History Challenge.  Students and teachers can get involved with educational materials related to Black Hoosier athletes to win prizes including tickets to Indians and Pacers games.  Teachers are asked to get involved to provide feedback on the program.

You are There gallery utilizes digital projection on fog screen to make history "live."

At the Indiana State Museum, the Legacy Theatre: The Indiana African American Experience[5]  is the main area that features the experience of African Americans in Indiana. The theatre is on the main floor and in a part of the museum that is free, but not on the main path of visitation and not included on the website. The space is a digital rich environment, with the visitor immersed in historical videos as well as a cacophony of Hoosiers voices overhead.  A video is playing in loop there in a church inspired theatre. There are three interactive game kiosks telling the stories of barbershops, schools and business.  The interactive games were developed by an outside contractor.  The games, targeted at the 4th grade audience, were short on historical content.[6]  In the business game, the central metaphor was a deck of cards. The gamer drew a card which determined the fate of the business. This seemed to trivialize the struggles of African Americans, and reduced it to the “luck of the draw.” Since the exhibit is a “theatre” and was designed for first-person interpretation, it primarily relies on the digital and first-person interpretation and has no physical artifacts displayed and very minimal interpretive text. When there is not a first-person interpreter present, as when I was there, it leaves the visitor without a lot of content or context.  The Legacy Theatre is not listed in the permanent exhibits list, and there are no specific curriculum materials for the exhibit online.  They have one special program related to Black History Month listed in the visitor information and are exhibiting an original copy of the Emancipation Proclamation.  The press releases, online marketing and in-house marketing all tie it to Lincoln, as opposed to African Americans that were impacted by the document.

The two organizations online presences are quite different.  The Indiana Historical Society website follows closely the information available at the facility, also providing additional materials.  It is particularly useful to researchers as the collection guides and holdings are online.  Even though many of the exhibits rely on digital materials, these are not available or archived online.  The Indiana State Museum website has very little information on-line, particularly as it relates to the exhibits and the collections.  In the collections section, it is difficult to find their on-line indexes and searching “African American” on the main site gets no hits. Inside the collections area, however, there are 764 hits for the search term “African American.”  (The featured items this month are bride and groom “dressed fleas” made in Mexico. A must see.)

Both sites have rich social media presences.  Both museums have their own Blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds.  The State museum blog includes not only the Indiana State Museum but their other sites around the state.  Their social media presence is largely promoting visitation, however, and is only secondarily educational. The Indiana Historical Society  has a more educationally focused social media presence. This is an interesting recent blog post on the relationship between “small audiences” and digital presentations as a future trend in the museum environment with dwindling school and museum funding for school programs and field trips.  Overall, the Indiana State Museum has a stronger social media presence with more followers, posts and likes.

The primary differences between the two digital spaces in the design and learning models are reflected by the concept of “museumness.”  The Indiana State Museum has a perception of less ”museumness,” with the IMAX theatre, less educational intreactives and more online focus on visitation than education.  There they do put focus, however, is in school visitation with specific on-line materials for teachers and students.  The Indiana Historical Society has a higher degree of museumness with collections items and research integrated with exhibition materials. Their social media is created to tie members and donors with the organization, as opposed to primarily driving visitation.  In addition, active participation beyond visitation is encouraged with a focus in the physical and digital presence in research.

Both organizations have not fully embraced the collaborative and creative aspects of the digital environment. Allowing for more shared authority is the critical challenge outlined in the recent “Letting Go?:Sharing Authority in a User Generated World.[7]  The Indiana State Museum is preparing a new permanent exhibit on the Underground Railroad for the Levi Coffin House, and while including a rich digital environment they are not planning for dynamism or interaction. Speaking with Curator Kisha Tandy about the new exhibit map, the digital design does not allow for changes as more knowledge is added to map or scholarly access to the data created for other projects.  The amazing digital projects in the “You Are There” galleries could have a new life on the web.  While I understand this may be perceived as undermining visitation, archiving and presenting some of the materials from past exhibits online, on their own or as “travelling exhibit” collaboration with other museums such as the Crispus Attucks Museum,  might allow them to reach more Hoosiers, without diluting visitation Hopefully, increasing the number of partnerships with outside groups will lead not only to collaborative projects but more open and dynamic museum models.

 


[1] I was not able to locate recent vitiation demographics.

[2] Angeliki Antonio, George Lepouras Costas Vassilak, “A Methodology for the Design of Online Exhibitions.“

[3] Ibid.

[4] On a practical note, with the location of numerous medical campuses near the museum these health related topics open new sponsors to those generally interested in historical programs.

[5] I could not find any page for this gallery on the website.

[6] Interview, Kisha Tandy 2/12/13.  The interactives, such as the Corn Maze, are now done in house.

[7] Bill, Adair, et al, Editors,  Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, (Philadelphia:  Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011).

 

4 Responses to “Museumness”

  1. Elena February 18, 2013 at 6:36 pm #

    Angela, I think you bring up a good point that many museums around here aren’t using the collaborative aspects of digital technology to their full extent. I’ve seen a lot of museum exhibits that leave things like notecards at the end for visitors to comment, but I don’t think I’ve seen anything like that in digital form. That might open up some more options for visitor feedback and what you do with it.

    • angelabpotter February 19, 2013 at 10:37 pm #

      The Springfield Lincoln musuem did a really intersting mini-exhibit on the response book to an exhibit. I guess this might be a way to create this “social intreaction” that we were talking about in class last night.

  2. MDKenny February 18, 2013 at 7:44 pm #

    I was interested in your observation that the ISM has a greater social media presence than the IHS, as I understood that the IHS makes various departments go through a central media relations or marketing staff member before posting online. It seems to me that this is playing it a bit too “safe,” and misses the point of using the various media.

    • angelabpotter February 19, 2013 at 10:36 pm #

      I would agree in general, although I think it depends on the point of the social media. If it to create buzz and drive vistorship, the moe the merrier it would seem. If it is to build attachment and precieved value to lead to membership, then perhaps well curated material with higher precieved value is the key. (Example: I am a member of IHS and would follow them before ISM, which I don’t feel as connected to.) In the middle of the din of social media, well curated responses seem to be increasingly important.

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