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Picture Post #16

It has been a while since I posted one of these collections, although the entries about our Cuba trip last November includes some nice photos.

Anyway, here are a few random shots from the past few weeks, with more, as always, in my Flickr feed.

Something Ugly

My friend Kathy and I have made a commitment to go out and practice our photo skills more often this year. This was from a morning we spent at Glen Echo Park, a legendary amusement park in the DC area that closed in 1968 and now operated as a cultural center.

Reflection

Getting artsy, this is the reflection of trees and the sky in one of the windows of the Glen Echo carousel, which still operates but not during the winter. The windows are from an earlier time and have a lot of imperfections that cause the swirl.

 Metal Typer

One more shot from Glen Echo, this is a classic arcade machine on display in one of the buildings that would stamp letters into the coins you deposit. A sign on top strongly discouraged dropping money into the machine since it is not functional. Wonder how many people ignore it.

Christmas Shoes

Some of the shoe ornaments Kathy had hanging on her Christmas tree. What is it with ladies and their shoes? :-)

Chinese Aligator

A Chinese alligator at the Cincinnati Zoo. It really blended in well with the surroundings and moved very little as we stared at it.

Cookies

Just a nice arrangement of cookies.

Picture Post #4

Some images from my walks through a couple of neighborhoods in DC in November. More recent shots are at the top of my Flickr feed. For many additional photos of DC, check the washingtondc tag.

Copper Reflection

A copper bowl, used as part of a store window holiday display, reflects parts of Georgetown in the morning sun, and a little of the photographer.

Capitol Repair

View of the US Capitol building (behind the scaffold hiding an extensive renovation) on a gray fall morning. If you’re in DC, visit the Newseum and head for the sixth floor balcony for great vistas of the monuments along Pennsylvania Avenue.

Pot Dealer

Pretty sure the window of this Georgetown store refers to their kitchenware.

Breakfast

Not all windows in Georgetown feature expensive objects for sale.

Picture Post #3

A few recent shots from in and around DC.

Framed

A workman directing traffic for a construction project in downtown DC (one of many) as seen through what I think used to be a police call box.

Golden Ceiling

If I gotta take someone to the airport (Washington National, NOT Reagan) early in the morning, may as well take advantage of the inside light.

Empty Metro

In the middle of the day, I not only get a Metro seat to myself but the whole car.

Church Tower

A tower on the Greater New Hope Baptist Church in the Chinatown area of Washington has kind of a medieval look to it.

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.

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.

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