Monday, March 29, 2010

A Bright Future

The Center for the Future of Museums blogged last week about one possible museum future. In this imagined scenario, 24 years in the future, a museum stays relevant to a changed education system by supplementing its small permanent exhibits with an aggressive program of changing exhibits.

The scenario describes a museum focused on three key principles:

1) "Perpetual beta": To summarize, the changing exhibits are always works in progress.

2) "The process is also the product": The museum recruits students to serve on the teams developing the exhibits, and 60% of the students are non-local.

3) "Don't collect, don't preserve": This one involves using a 3-D printer to make copies of original artifacts for exhibitions, an interesting idea you can read more about here.

The first two principles seem especially useful and timely concepts for the many small to mid-size museums in this area to explore.

To take just one example, what could the American Swedish Historical Museum do with this model of changing exhibits and student involvement?

The American Swedish Historical Museum

I visited this interesting jewel for the first time this winter. Located in FDR Park, near Broad Street and Pattison Avenue (down near the sports complexes), the museum was founded in 1926 during the Sesquicentennial celebration in South Philly. After surviving the Great Depression, the museum held its grand opening in 1938, the 300th anniversary of the New Sweden Colony.

The museum is designed as a collection of miniature museums, each focused on an "area of Swedish accomplishment." Some exhibition rooms have decidedly 1930s flare, making the decor itself as visually interesting as the objects on display. The changing exhibit gallery is currently presenting work from two Swedish artists as part of Philagrafika 2010.

The museum's Pioneer Room, a romanticized 1939 version of a 19th century Swedish farmhouse

Obviously, this museum, like so many others, must grapple with limited resources and too many potential challenges to count. But what could the American Swedish Historical Museum do with another changing exhibit space, perhaps online?

Could the small staff create a model of vibrant, changing exhibitions that evolve over time, involve students, and further their mission of preserving and promoting Swedish and Swedish-American heritage, history and culture?

The museum's current galleries are so diverse that online exhibitions could explore topics as varied as New Sweden colonists' life in the 1640s to technological innovations like the first working propeller and early solar-powered engines. And involving students in the creation and evolution of such online exhibitions could connect the museum to audiences far beyond the Philadelphia region.

Certainly that's the kind of museum future I'd like to see.

Monday, March 22, 2010

CEO of Philadelphia History Museum Retiring

This is proving to be a big year for the newly renamed Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent.

Along with a new name, new branding, and under-renovation building, the museum will soon have a new director. Viki Sand, the museum's executive director and CEO, is planning to retire by June 2010.

A consulting firm is handling the search for the new director. If you or a colleague might be a good match for the position, you can read the job posting here.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

More Visitors, Fewer Dollars

The American Association of Museums (AAM) released an interesting report last month about museum attendance and funding in 2009.

The AAM surveyed its approximately 2,300 institutional members to ask how museums fared during this "year of recession." The responses are mixed.

Among the 481 museums nationwide that responded, 57% reported increased attendance in 2009, in many cases regardless of declines in funding. Among history-related institutions, about 59% of the respondents reported increased attendance.

The museums most often attributed the higher attendance rates to more marketing to local visitors, more people vacationing closer to home, new or special exhibits, and the relative low price of museum admissions among entertainment options.

Not surprisingly, the survey found that most museums experienced financial stress in 2009. Museums with larger budgets were more likely to experience "severe or very severe stress." The AAM defined severe stress as "bad, but I have seen worse in the previous five years," and very severe stress as "the very worst I have seen in at least five years."

Unfortunately for those of us looking for jobs in the area, the Mid-Atlantic region had the highest percentage of museums reporting severe or very severe stress.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Portland Bound

Tomorrow I'm flying to Portland, OR for the 2010 annual meeting of the National Council on Public History (NCPH).

I'll be presenting a poster on my summer project updating and expanding an inventory of African American historic sites in Philadelphia.

This will be my first poster session as a presenter, so I'm excited to see how it all goes. If you'll be attending the meeting, stop by and chat about the inventory project, public history in Philly, or the awesomeness of Powell's City of Books.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Celebrity History

NBC premiered a new show on celebrity genealogy tonight, a few weeks after PBS premiered its series on the same topic (different celebrities) in mid-February.

Who knew celebrity genealogy could make such compelling television?

The NBC show, "Who Do You Think You Are?", follows famous people (tonight, Sarah Jessica Parker) as they learn more about their family history with the help of professional genealogists, historians, and -- an "official partner."

I cringed at the product placement stuff, but at least offers a two-week free trial of their service. And overall, the show's not bad. Sarah Jessica Parker traveled to Ohio, California and Massachusetts to explore her ancestors' lives, learning about the California gold rush and the Salem witch trials along the way.

The PBS show, "Faces of America," is hosted by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. If you watch only one, watch Gates' series.

On this show, Gates is the one who does the heavy lifting, preparing a scrapbook of family history for each celebrity, traveling to important sites, and interviewing the celebrities and their families about their lives. But Gates offers serious historical context as well, and tackles tough issues like the Japanese internment during World War II (Kristi Yamaguchi's parents were both imprisoned).

Hopefully all this celebrity genealogy will help inspire people to pay closer attention to their own history. As Gates says in the first episode of his show, "Sometimes when we read about the great events of history, we forget that history was lived by our very own ancestors."