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I'm author of The Snipesville Chronicles. I'm also a published academic historian, but don't hold that against me.Oh, and I'm a Brit. I just happen to live in Georgia.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

What Makes A Museum Great?

What makes a museum work? That's a question I have wanted to answer for many years. Too often, as a kid, I begged to go to museums, only to get, well, bored when I got there. More recently, I was fascinated to hear a friend who is a well-respected historian expound on how much she hated museums, and how dull they were.
Last summer, I taught public history in London to undergraduates from throughout Georgia . Every week, we took a day-long field trip to a different museum, with a view to figuring out what works, and what doesn't. Of course, we weren't there as official consultants, and my goal was to get students looking at museums with a critical eye. But I think we learned a few things that might be of interest.
Size doesn't matter. The British Museum, of course, wins the "Who Has the Biggest and Most Bewildering Collection Award" for all time, and one could certainly argue that its treasures, from the Elgin marbles to the pickled body of the Bog Man, are attraction enough. Our class visit to the BM began as a mystery tour: The students, in their first week in London, didn't know where they were going until we got there. For the first fifteen minutes, I had them go off in pairs to figure out what the theme of the Museum is, without consulting the official leaflets, and then return to give brief oral reports. To discourage cheating, and to encourage creativity, I awarded extra points for humor. A typical response was that of the student who threw open his arms and said "EVERYTHING!"
Like every British kid within a hundred-mile radius of London, I was dragged to the BM more than once in the Seventies, and set loose to wander (or, more accurately, misbehave). I've never been that keen to go back, honestly, because I feel boredom setting in rather rapidly after I've oohed and ahhed at a few of the more remarkable exhibits.
But the BM scored points with me on this occasion. It made quite an effort to help visitors avoid being overwhelmed, and also made their experience a personal one.
There are more resources specifically for kids these days, including a family-friendly audio tour, hosted by British comic actor Stephen Fry. Scattered throughout the Museum were tables where visitors could handle artifacts. What was striking was the friendliness of the staff at these tables: They encouraged kids to touch, answered questions concisely with humor and without droning on at length, and otherwise made themselves very approachable. It was this spirit of hospitality, more than anything, that helped make the BM less daunting to us all.
Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge has, in many ways, practically the opposite set of challenges. It's on the very edge of London, in Epping Forest, which makes it off the beaten path for most visitors. The building itself is tall (three stories) but very narrow, so space is limited. There are practically no period artifacts beyond the actual building, and it's unlikely to acquire any.
Yet Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge was my students' favorite museum in London.
That's because it has soul.
We were given a tour by Sophie, the enthusiastic director, who showed us how the museum makes the most of its limited resources. Unlike larger museums, this one has a very focused theme: The building was indeed a Tudor hunting lodge. Royals and their guests, often a bit worse for wear after several rounds of drinks, would shoot arrows out of the windows at deer who were driven toward them from the forest by servants. It's a lovely, Monty Pythonesque image, really, especially when you realize that the guests were sustained by ample food and drink being delivered from the kitchen on the first floor, and it speaks volumes about the entitlements of the wealthiest Tudors. A friend of mine laughingly pointed out that this is roughly the style in which the wealthy still hunt today.
The museum uses wonderfully presented fake foods to recreate the kitchen. The upper floors include dress-up costumes and a few small displays. An excellent scavenger hunt (treasure hunt in British English) is available for kids, and my son enjoyed that enormously. The view from the windows is a great spark to imagination.
But the most striking thing is the hospitality of the staff. I have visited the Lodge before, and even in the absence of the wonderful Sophie, it's clear that everyone is passionately fond of the Lodge, and eager to share its story with others.
Over many years of visiting museums and running my own public history programs, I have become convinced that it's hospitality that counts. An impressive collection and sophisticated interpretation don't make for a pleasant visitor experience if staff are apathetic, pompous, or dismissive toward visitors. One passionate, committed, and friendly interpreter is worth a thousand artifacts.

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