Building Museums™ Reflections: Jeremy Mendelson

COVID: The Future of Museums and Beyond the Pandemic

In a plenary session titled, “COVID: The Future of Museums and Beyond the Pandemic,” panelists shared findings of a large-scale research project. The project examined the role race and ethnicity play in cultural engagement, thus helping us see gaps or blindspots in how museum spaces miss or misrepresent various groups within a museum. Understanding this gap can help create a more inclusive environment for Black, indigenous, and other minority communities.   The research showed the importance of testing, strategizing and innovating to create more inclusive museum experiences.

The pandemic forces us to develop the mindset of “museums without walls,” recognizing virtual connections now pervade everyone’s lives.  We can harness the virtual experience to reach a more diverse audience.  This requires big and bold dreams to move into a new frontier.  Further, this requires us to acknowledge that we have more questions than answers. Asking questions, like, “Who we are open for?” and “What stories are we telling?” can help us focus on what is important.  

Finally, to make our museum more of the center of our community, we need to better understand four places we can meet visitors along their journey: 

  1. Outside our building
  2. Inside our building 
  3. Outside after the visit 
  4. Visitor’s next visit to the museum

Reaching our visitors at these different places may be a difficult process.  Yet, this process can make our museums more relevant.  Moreover, asking various departments for support can help us break down bureaucratic silos.

Buildy Award presentations recognize outstanding recent museum building projects 

One of the award recipients was the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC)  in Washington, DC.  As a former visitor, I appreciate the work this institution undertakes. 

The team that designed and built the museum was composed of a broad, diverse and engaged group of stakeholders. The team was focused on the themes of “Hope, Resilience and Praise,” which are all associated with African-American culture. The team wanted to create a transparent, open and welcoming environment. 

The African American History and Culture Museum illustrated links of mission to the design by:

  1. Creating historical moments for visitors by enabling visitors to emerge from tight spaces on the lower level, into more open spaces, similar to the transition from slavery to freedom. 
  2. Using a series of ramps to enable visitors to travel through history .
  3. Using soaring ceilings to show hopes and dreams. (A Tuskegee plane was suspended from the ceiling.)
  4. Enabling the visitor to journey upward through the museum’s upper floors, to emulate the African-American aspiration for a better future. 

These examples also show how the designers were creative in integrating landscape and wayfinding to make the visitor comfortable and able to move through spaces. 

As someone who works at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, I was intrigued to learn how the African American History and Culture Museum balances the history of a culture with the sharing of personal histories.   (At the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, we use a similar approach.) 

The second recipient of the Buildy Award was the Louisiana Children’s Museum (LCM).

Keeping children at the forefront of their planning, the LCM’s building team used inspiration from children to drive its design. Kids from ages 5 to 9– and school focus groups — participated in the design process.

Seeing children as creative, imaginative, curious, and playful, the museum designed spaces to be kid-friendly.   The LCM created kid-sized spaces — “kindows” (kid windows). Child-inspired designs and views of the world appear all over the building, from bathroom signs to “no entry” signs. 

The team cultivated dialogue within and between generations, including:

  1. Kids in dialogue with parents; 
  2. Parents with each other; and 
  3. Grandparents receiving advice from their own grandparents, and giving advice to their own grandchildren

The LCM furthers that goal in one exhibit by representing views of 24 New Orleans grandparents of different backgrounds.  The LCM asks for lessons from grandparents from their own grandparents. 

The museum also incorporates advice and insight shared by grandparents with their grandchildren in the areas of art, music, food, literature and storytelling. 

As the museum sits within a natural 1300-acre urban park, the LCM uses outside spaces for programming.  Hurricane Katrina was a pivotal event in the museum’s thinking on many levels.  Because of the extent of the damage, the LCM saw the community needed accessible, easy-to-reach experiences for children. Because of the trauma that Hurricane Katrina caused, children had fear of water soon after the storm.  The museum explored this trauma and worked to transform children’s attitudes positively.  Even in the last few years, there have been six hurricanes. The building staff starts early childhood education with water education, showing water as fun, engaging and educational.  For example, the museum includes a cistern, which is used for water collection.

The museum further exemplifies its educational mission through Integration of landscape features with building design, to include:

  1. Outside tunnel for outdoor experiences;
  2. “Dig into nature” exhibit with glass windows that look out upon the outdoors;  
  3. Green infrastructure, including the use of water drains that moves water into many areas; 
  4. The museum sits on a “floating island”; 
  5. Indigenous and noninvasive plants, to help children cherish the environment; and
  6. Welcome porch and bridge with glass beads (per New Orleans culture)  that capture sunlight.

Building on a Legacy – Preserving a Historic African American Cultural Resource – The Josiah Henson Park Visitor Center & Museum

The Josiah Henson Park Visitor Center and Museum of North Bethesda, Maryland is the only archaeologically-based museum focusing on African-American slavery.  The museum site was on four acres. A major archeological excavation led to the discovery of some of the museum’s 40,000 artifacts. After a brief synopsis of the life of Josiah Henson, a 19th century slave, the presentation team shared challenges faced in restoring and developing a historic plantation site to serve 21st century visitors.

These included getting political buy-in of area leaders.  To facilitate the buy-in, Montgomery Parks developed a Master Plan to be approved by the Montgomery County Planning Board. One challenge was working in compliance to the county while allowing us to show a timeframe of not just the 1930s but 1800s – 1850.  We needed to assemble a team of experts and stakeholders — including students, scholars, community leaders and descendants of Josiah Henson — to ensure the community was involved in every planning step.  The panel worked for 12 years to cultivate a positive business-resident relationship. 

Remaining open during construction and renovation posed challenges. As a result, the team had greater difficulty anticipating obstacles like termite damage in Josiah Henson’s log cabin.. Add to that the pandemic had an impact on restoration and programming form having a virtual grand opening to the challenge of engaging visitors in workshops virtually. 

The presenters displayed a powerful example of stewardship of historic resources for community recreation and educational purposes. Site staff used Henson’s words from his 1849 autobiography as the interpretive cornerstone to shape the design of the indoor and outdoor exhibits. To date, five or six editions of Henson’s autobiography have been published, and have been translated into several languages.   

In crafting a visitor experience, staff used Henson’s voice to thoughtfully design the exhibits and public programs. In this way, they balanced modern elements with preserving historic legacy.  Panelists explained how they immerse visitors in the past through purposeful choreography. The early stages of a visit specifically flow from arrival at the Visitor Center to the orientation video to an outdoor platform that allows visitors to see the whole museum site.  Visitors also enter the kitchen through the backdoor, similar to what a slave did.   The kitchen exhibit focused on (1) who used the space, (2) who lived in the space, and (3) how the space was used.  Thus visitors move from present to past and back to present.

The architecture educates visitors.  Each element of the site tells a unique narrative. To create a backdrop to Josiah Henson’s story, a log kitchen was restored to a 19th century appearance.  The Montgomery County Planning Board approved a new backdoor for the museum which helps immerse visitors into the narrative.  

One purpose of the site’s work is showing the life of a moral man within an immoral system.  The museum shows elements of Henson’s childhood and slavery, which includes his plantation life in Maryland.  The site has a three and a half minute video, “Escape from Bondage,” which shows Henson leaving Kentucky, to travel 700 miles with his four children and his wife.

Archeology is central to the museum program and is the focus of outdoor education. Outdoor education station: Archaeology is central to our program. The archaeological outdoor classroom is an element of the only archaeology-based museum that focuses on an African American individual and the enslavement of people of African descent. In the USA, as we dig up more, we adjust our programs and interpretive information. We don’t dig anything without archaeology history or understanding. We have an onsite archaeological volunteer unit. The architectural elements have been retained from the 1930s.

The museum’s focus on slavery lets it pivot to contemporary discussions of racial justice and equality.  As I work at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, whose mission is to address contemporary genocide issues, I appreciated one panelist’s mentioning how she wants to make the Josiah Henson Park Visitor Center & Museum a safe space for discussing modern-day racial issues.

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