Everyone learns during a visit to a museum, including the professionals who are employed at museums around the world. A museum professional, or any professional for that matter, who does not take time to learn is inevitably trapped in time. I don’t mean to make this sound like an episode in a science fiction show, but to move forward in telling stories of the past, we really must look to the future. We must remember that everyone learns during a visit to a museum.
The amount of learning that occurs at any time by any one visitor varies greatly—and I include myself in this statement. Last month my colleague George Miller and I had a definite purpose for our visit to the Natural History Museum of Utah (NHMU) in Salt Lake City. Not surprisingly, we wanted to learn. And learn…and learn…and learn. Our trip was a jam-packed two days that entailed gleaning as much information as possible from the museum and the staff who took time out of their busy schedules to meet with us.
Everyone Learns During a Visit to a Museum: The Purpose
We were so determined to learn from our trip that we proposed the following ideas to receive research funds that would ultimately make this trip possible.
The purpose of this research is to investigate the methods and best practices the NHMU employs in their interpretive education endeavors. Particular emphasis of this visit will include exploration of the following:
- Exhibit and online interpretation using multimedia and mapping programs to provide seamless interface between the two
- Strategies in presenting stories of Native Americans through online avenues
- Evaluation of student/teacher resources as well as on-site and outreach experiences
- Discussion with NHMU’s education staff regarding outreach education, web/interactive initiatives, and school services
Everyone Learns During a Visit to a Museum: The Visit
Armed with these goals, George and I arrived to Salt Lake City on a Wednesday afternoon and spent the rest of the day and part of the evening exploring the NHMU as not just museum professionals, but also as visitors. We were quickly enveloped in the museum’s story, often exclaiming, “Look at how fun this is!”
We sat at a dinner table of prehistoric animals and manipulated the meals of a dire wolf and wooly mammoth. When we guessed correctly, we heard the sound of the predator in question. We also walked on top of replicated dinosaur dig sites, searched for fossilized dinosaur skin, and tried to piece together the skull bones of a carnivorous dinosaur. As we traveled through the land of the dinosaurs, with skeletal replicas nearly within arms’ reach, we entered into a gallery dedicated to native peoples. We were in awe of a pair of sandals thousands of years old, and we even tried our hand at reassembling pottery duplicated from archeological finds. I could go on and on about what we did, but I think I will leave it a bit to your imagination. Suffice it to say, we were museum professionals having fun just being museum visitors.
Our second day at the museum was much more serious. We absorbed everything we experienced as visitors, put on our professional hats and set out to meet the head of the IT department and the director of school services. Both were gracious in their time and their willingness to share. We learned the ins and outs of various high-tech and low-tech interactives on Thursday morning. That afternoon we sat on the museum’s verandah and shared experiences and methods to meet the needs of students and teachers through on-site field trips, as well as outreach programs.
Everyone Learns During a Visit to a Museum: The Outcome
George and I came away with several impressions.
- We have so much to learn about the future of museums and employing the best avenues to engage our audiences.
- Museums often share the same triumphs and struggles, whether they are in urban Salt Lake City, Utah, or rural Cody, Wyoming.
- Learning from museum colleagues opens doors to new approaches and ideas that can bring healthy change and challenges.
- What works for one museum may not always work for another museum. And there is nothing wrong with that.
More than a month later, as we process our short trip to the NHMU, we believe we addressed each of our goals. What happens next is up to us. How can we take everything we learned and see relevance in what the Buffalo Bill Center of the West currently does, and in what it could do in the near future? Only time will tell how we can continue to live by the motto: Everyone learns during a visit to a museum!