In May I attended the American Alliance of Museums Conference in Baltimore. I want to share the on-site insight at the National Aquarium that I attended at AAM.
Heather Doggett, Director of Visitor Programs and Staff Training at the National Aquarium, noticed that children expressed disappointment upon discovering that an educator did not actually care for the animals. She realized that visitors placed a higher value on encounters with content experts (animal caretakers) than trained educators. Rather than be offended, she decided that placing animal care staff in the public spaces would be an excellent idea.
Of course, this affects the animal care staff. It requires that they be active participants in visitor education and that they be comfortable interacting with visitors. These are generally not activities that collections care staff are trained to do, so they were trained. With up to 40 connections between content experts and visitors per day, this program requires buy-in from everyone. Rather than replace education staff, a written goal for this program is “amplification of effort”, meaning that educators continue to present in the galleries, but animal care staff supplement through public feedings or other visitor encounters. Discussion with one keeper who participates in these Personally Facilitated Experiences demonstrated that the animal care staff gets something from these encounters as well. Cleaning cages is not glamorous when you do it every day, but to visitors it is often an exotic and exciting activity that sparks a bit of awe. Cleaning the next cage may feel a bit more glamorous after a child’s “wow” at meeting the person who feeds the jellyfish.
Where else can an experience such as this take place? What the National Aquarium has realized is that they have two things that set them apart from any other activity a family in Baltimore might choose to do on any given day; their collection and their content experts. The collection is on display for all visitors to enjoy, but the content experts were behind closed doors. Placing them out in the public spaces provides opportunities for visitors to have a very personal experience. If you found the curator of American Art at the Art Institute in Chicago standing in front of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks and they told you about their experience unpacking or cleaning the painting or expressed their opinion about it; wouldn’t you tell everyone about the encounter? Wouldn’t you remember everything the curator told you about the painting? Wouldn’t you have created a personal connection to that painting? Wouldn’t you want to come back for more? When you meet the jellyfish keeper and he tells you that he gets stung daily, which jellyfish hurts most, and how long the pain lasts; isn’t that more memorable than some facts about jellyfish stings?
This fabulous program could be repeated in any museum, provided that the museum actually has content experts. In my humble opinion, it should be! Not only are visitors rewarded, but staff are as well. It provides opportunities for cross-pollination and idea sharing between educators and content experts and can help them each to better understand what the other does on a daily basis. With recent layoffs of content experts at some prominent natural history museums, perhaps curators and collection managers should be thinking about increasing their relevance to the visitor. When was the last time a curator or collection manager at your institution stepped out into the public space and interacted with a visitor who wasn’t a donor or VIP? Natural history museums should follow in the footsteps of the National Aquarium. Checking for pests, packing loans, and massaging field data may not seem glamorous when you do it every day, but there are visitors out there who would be fascinated by your stories. Why not connect with them?