Taking My Money Elsewhere

Over the past couple of years, I’ve complained at the Smithsonian more than a few times for doing a rather poor job. Or at least what I see as their job, which is to educate and inform their visitors in the most engaging and interactive way possible.

Although I’m a “friend” of the museum, my annual contribution is not nearly big enough for their administration to care much when I point out their problems and threaten to drop my membership. So, they probably didn’t notice this month when I renewed at a much lower level.

I’m pretty sure that action will trigger a reaction from the computer that regularly spits out the materials asking for more money. It will note what I’ve done with digital sadness and ask me, more than a few times, if I want to reconsider for the sake of this great institution.

What it will not do is cause anyone at the Smithsonian to take a more reflective look at their mission, instead of spending on more public relations. It would be nice to have the kind of money to make that happen.

Give ‘em a C+ for Effort

I’ve complained about the Smithsonian Institution more than a few times in this space, specifically about how they do a rather crappy job of educating their visitors, something that should be a primary focus for any museum.

So I was very interested to see a new exhibition called Math Alive that opened last month and about which, I received seven or eight excitedly worded messages, both by regular and electronic mail, from the museum’s marketing department*.

The Band

I’d like to say this is a good start for making the Smithsonian a more interactive learning place but unfortunately, the exhibit is far more misses than hits.  For one thing, it’s not really the start of anything since Math Alive is only a temporary installation, closing less than three months after opening.

Even worse, the exhibit probably won’t be visited by many in their target demographic, families with upper elementary or middle school kids. It’s located in a small space three stories below the mall in a building that is mostly used for offices and meetings. Not in Air and Space, Natural History, or American History, the museums in DC visited by millions each year.

The only redeeming factor of it’s location is that the Smithsonian’s Discovery Theater, which presents a variety of children’s programming, is right down the hall. So maybe a few families will take a look at Math Alive before or after the performances they’ve paid to attend.

I’m sure the Smithsonian education staff has been soliciting schools to bring groups of students to visit Math Alive but they’re not likely to get many takers considering we are well into testing season around here and nothing, not even field trips for interactive learning, gets in the way of that.

As to the exhibit itself, the “40 interactives” that “brings to life the real math behind some of the activities children like”, again offers more misses than hits. While a few of the installations are very effective and engaging, most seem to be more about flash and noise than learning mathematical concepts.

Many of the “interactives” are really no better than the web-based activities kids could use in their browser at home. And at least two of the displays, including a centerpiece interactive, were not even working when I visited on the second day the exhibit was open.

Anyway, at this point I guess I’m supposed to give the Smithsonian curators an A for effort and move on. However, considering all the pieces of Math Alive that don’t work (and aside from the technical problems), I’m not sure the designers deserve more than a C+ for both effort and execution.


*Full disclosure: I am a member of the Smithsonian and a donor, although at a relatively low level. Certainly not high enough to influence policies and exhibitions.

The picture is The Band, from my Flickr stream, and shows part of a Math Alive exhibit (another view is here) that’s supposed to connect math and music. It’s one that generates more noise than understanding.

Smart Magic

In this month’s Smithsonian Magazine, Teller, the silent (and I suspect more intelligent) half of the comedy magic team Penn and Teller, talks about the magicians art and how their work relates to cognitive science.

Magic is an art, as capable of beauty as music, painting or poetry. But the core of every trick is a cold, cognitive experiment in perception: Does the trick fool the audience? A magician’s data sample spans centuries, and his experiments have been replicated often enough to constitute near-certainty. Neuroscientists—well intentioned as they are—are gathering soil samples from the foot of a mountain that magicians have mapped and mined for centuries. MRI machines are awesome, but if you want to learn the psychology of magic, you’re better off with Cub Scouts and hard candy.

You’ll need to read the article to understand the Cub Scouts and hard candy reference, but it’s worth the time just to learn the process behind a card trick you’ve probably seen done.

Anyway, I’ve been a fan of Penn and Teller and their type of magic act for decades. Unlike many magicians who are far too pretentious (about their “magic” and themselves), their performances not only make great use of humor but in them they work very hard to bring the audience in on the secrets.

And I can testify that Teller speaks, and does so very eloquently, after attending a packed presentation he and Penn did at the Smithsonian many years ago.* One that was very entertaining without any tricks.

In the same category of magicians – smart, funny, and respectful of the audience – if you never seen Ricky Jay perform, go find his excellent HBO special from the 80’s, “Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants“, on YouTube.

So how does all this magic stuff connect to education, our usual theme in this space?

Sorry. When it comes to linking the two, I got nothin’.


* I remember that the first time Teller said anything during the session the audience gave him a long ovation.

Seriously Amazing Public Relations

If you’ve ever spent more than a day in Washington, DC, chances are you also spent some time in at least one of the many museums that make up the Smithsonian Institution.

So, what did you think of that experience?

The people running the Smithsonian wanted to know as well and recently completed the “first in-depth research in almost 20 years” to determine how visitors viewed the 165 year old organization.  Researchers found their name recognition was way down and that people used words like “elitist” and “antiquated” to describe the institution. I think “boring” and “lacking involvement” also apply.

It would be wonderful if the Smithsonian took those findings (and maybe a few of my suggestions) as a great opportunity to improve their exhibits, presentations, and activities. A chance to update their educational mission out of the 1950’s lecture/demo, static display approach they are currently so fond of.

However, this is Washington, and around here, we don’t improve the product, we work on making better public relations.

According to an in-house document obtained by The Washington Post, a branding campaign was ordered “to help us change the way people see us. And to place more emphasis on what we do instead of on what we have.” The branding idea was an outgrowth of a strategic plan developed last year. The Smithsonian spent $1 million for research and creation of the slogan.

That new slogan? “Seriously Amazing”

Seriously? You paid one million bucks to arrive at calling yourselves “seriously amazing”?

In Need of More Than Sprinkles

In a recent post at the always essential Boing Boing, a writer takes science museums to task for failing to help grownups understand the complexities of modern science.

So if stuff like this is happening, why do I think science museums are still failing adults? And why do surveys reflect such serious dissatisfaction?

I think this is a sundae problem.

A sundae is a bowl full of ice cream. You put some stuff on top of it, but it remains, fundamentally, a bowl full of ice cream. And when I talk about examples of really great adult engagement in science museums, I am, generally, talking about the sprinkles, not the ice cream. The museums acknowledge the problem, but they’re dealing with it by adding in a couple of things here and there. A traveling exhibit. One exhibit out of the whole museum. One night a month. What they really need are serious changes to the bulk of the experience.

That last sentence is especially true of the Smithsonian museums (“America’s attic”) in DC at whom I recently ranted for largely the same issue, doing a poor job of educating their visitors.*

However, the Smithsonian doesn’t even do the sprinkles since they have no museum dedicated to science in their collection and the few exhibits on scientific topics are static, non-engaging displays of artifacts, largely involving their history.


*And as predicted, the people running the Smithsonian could care less what someone at my donation level thinks of their practices. :-)

An Open Letter to the Smithsonian

A few days ago I renewed my membership in the Friends of the Smithsonian, much later than I have in past years. To be honest, I was seriously considering not continuing my support of your organization.

I know my annual contribution is relatively small compared to the big bucks you get from many individuals and corporations, so you probably don’t care why I hesitated, waited, and reconsidered.  But I’m going to tell you anyway.

Largely it boils down to the fact that I don’t think you are doing your job, although it’s likely that you and I see the purpose of the Smithsonian, and all museums/zoos/aquariums, differently.

Your primary job is not research or archiving stuff, both of which by all accounts you do very well, but to educate. First and foremost museums and those other organizations should be do everything they can to help their visitors learn about and understand their speciality.

However, as with schools, your traditional methods of conveying information just aren’t effective anymore and you need to change.

Very few exhibits in the Smithsonian interact with visitors and encourage them to participate in the experience. Almost all consist of an artifact, nicely displayed with a plaque or movie nearby explaining what the item is. The museum equivalent of the lecture – certainly appropriate for some circumstances but a very ineffective way to get your students involved in developing their own learning.

It’s not like there aren’t some good models for you to study and borrow their ideas. A few blocks away in DC are the Newseum and Spy Museum, both very interactive and both of which do a much better job of teaching about American history and society than our “National” museums.

And when it comes to science and technology, you do a completely lousy job.

Those two Air and Space Museums (very few out-of-town visitors even know about the second one, much less can get there), once you get past the novelty of planes hanging from the ceiling, are pretty boring, an oversized version of lecturing. Again, there are plenty of examples of great interactive, participatory science museums around the world (start with the Exploratorium in San Francisco) but sadly none are in DC.

Then there are the activities and presentations you offer to those of us who are members of the museum. They have also been stagnating in recent years. Too many of the same travelog slide shows and activities with military themes,* not enough presentations on interesting topics by engaging people.

I understand that most of your funding depends on a small bunch of hyper-sensitive congress critters, the loudest among them always on the lookout for another cultural war to fight. But grow a spine and offer some events that explore some of the more challenging parts of the American experience.

Anyway, you have my money for the coming year and I know you’ll be writing frequently to ask for more. You won’t get it and it’s very possible that next year at this time I may decide to take my contributions elsewhere.

I hope you’ll care enough about your education mission to some big changes to the way you interact with those of us who come to visit (you could start with your web site), but frankly, I’m not optimistic.


*Yeah, I know it’s the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. That doesn’t mean everything you do for the next four years needs to be centered around that topic.

A Tale of Two Learning Centers

Last Tuesday was the first day of school here in the overly-large school district. And I took the day off.

Everyone is too busy getting things started with the kids to want any of us evil central office types in their building anyway, so I went into DC to play tourist for a few hours.

I wanted to check out the recently remodeled Smithsonian Museum of American History (reopened last November) and a couple of new exhibits at the Newseum.

Seeing both institutions in the same day was an interesting contrast, both in terms of the museums themselves and the teaching techniques they use.

3917278300_9c2aa0f955.jpg

Let’s face it, no matter the subject matter, museums are educational institutions. Their missions may include other stuff (research, preservation, public relations for the sponsoring organization) but primarily the primary goal is to help visitors learn.

In that regard, the Smithsonian is generally very interesting and does an adequate job – in a very formal, staid and somewhat dull manner.

Even with all the tens of millions spent on the History museum (the interior of the building itself does look much better than the old version), most of the exhibits still just sit there.

With few exceptions, most rooms display various artifacts accompanied by static, text-based information hanging nearby. There is very little audio or video and almost no opportunities for us learners to interact and play with the information.

It doesn’t have to be that way. It is very possible to make American history come alive as the Newseum, just a short walk away, clearly demonstrates.

It’s not that they don’t have their own collection of artifacts as well. However, the designers have mixed in lots of excellent media, both original and from other sources, along with some very inviting interactive displays.

Of course, the Newseum’s view of history is through the lens of journalism but in many ways they do a better job with the overall subject than the Smithsonian.

They actually tell a story and involve the visitor in that story rather than just letting assorted pieces just sit there.

I know, I know. It’s probably unfair to compare the two institutions, one more than 100 years old, one open less than two years after a decade of planning.

One managed by a private foundation that charges admission, one government owned and free.

But before the designers at the Smithsonian spend any more money renovating their many properties, maybe they should walk down the street and spend some time looking at what good teaching in a museum context looks like.


Full disclosure: I’m a Contributing Member of the Smithsonian and have a basic membership in the Newseum. Does that give me the right to complain? :-)

The picture is of a display on the concept of flight in a small interactive science exhibit area at the Museum of American History. A nice start, Smithsonian, but when are you going to create an honest-to-goodness hands-on science museum?

Flat Learning

One of the advantages of living in or near a big city is all the cultural and educational opportunities to take advantage of.

In the DC area, of course, we have the many different parts of the Smithsonian Institution.

Last week I got the chance for a semi-private look at the Museum of Natural History’s much-hyped (at least around here) new Ocean Hall at an evening reception.

It’s a very impressive space (but that’s true of the whole building) with some interesting displays. It’s obvious that the museum administrators have put a lot of resources into the room.

However, something was bothering me as I walked around the room. Something was very wrong with the exhibit.

It was flat.globe.jpg

The presentation certainly includes lots of displays and plenty of information, but overall the exhibition showed very little imagination and no interactivity.

The one display that stood out was a globe onto which was projected animation and video explaining ocean currents, shifting continents, and more about how the earth changes.

It was pretty much the only thing in the huge room that moved.

Let’s face it: museums are educational institutions.

Their primary job is to teach their visitors on the various topic on their particular theme, whatever that happens to be.

However, the traditional museum format, placing an object on display accompanied by a plaque describing it, is pretty much the equivalent of the traditional classroom lecture.

Knowledge is passed one way to the visitor (or student) with no opportunity for feedback or questioning.

Creating interactive exhibits is no doubt hard work and certainly costs more than static displays. But you can find excellent examples of this kind of interactive learning in museums all over the world.

Except here in DC, where the Smithsonian, supposedly the worlds largest museum, has a dozen or more impressive buildings in which, for the most part, you can look but not touch.

As with our educational system, our national museum really needs to create learning opportunities that are far more interactive and much less flat.

More Stuff in the Commons

Updating a post from a couple of weeks ago, the Commons section of flickr welcomes yet another big collection from a major museum.

The Smithsonian Institution has posted more than 800 photographs this week, all with no copyright restrictions and all open for comments and tagging.

flickr is making a great case for being an indispensable classroom tool.