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Friday, October 12, 2012

Reaching and Teaching Through Material Culture

Two weeks ago Judy Guston, Elyse Poinsett and I had the opportunity to present at a symposium on Reaching and Teaching Through Material Culture, held at the Winterthur Museum.  The three of us participated as part of a session on using technology and our presentation "A Tale of Two Programs: Using Technology Judiciously to Improve Visitor Experience" explored the ways that both technology-based programs and technology-free programs can work to create an intimate experience of collections objects.

The two programs we used as case studies were the blog-based Today in the Civil War and the no-tech Hands-on-Tours. In some cases the two programs even draw on the same set of collections objects--there is a Civil War Hands-on-Tour (as well as tours on everything from Magic to The Sea) and the same documents used on the tour have or will come up in due course on Today in the Civil War. Through our presentation we were hoping to show that technology is a great tool, but only a tool, and one to be used with thought, rather than as an automatic and necessary component of any 21st-century museum experience. We also wanted to encourage our colleagues in small to mid-sized institutions that even without a huge technology budget or staff you can still produce great programs. Based on the positive comments we received, our message and examples made an impact. Many thanks to everyone who helped us create our presentation and to all of the Rosenbach visitors (both web and on-site) who have participated in and supported these two programs over the years.

One aspect that unites the two programs we discussed is that they are intended to provide deeper access to and more personal experience with items from our collection. That theme seemed to be a leitmotif running through the entire symposium: making connections to great objects is at the heart of great museum experiences. From the keynote speaker, who ran through slide after slide of fantastic objects from so many museums and historical societies that our jaws were hanging slack with amazement, to the closing speaker who presented detailed survey data indicating that people's most meaningful museum experiences center around objects, the theme came through loud and clear--objects matter. To be honest, this wasn't much of a surprise to us Rosenbachers--we've seen people's excitement on getting close to a real letter by George Washington or seeing Joyce's slanted penmanship running down the page. But it's nice to know that we're on the right track and that we're not alone in our thinking.

So what objects matter to you? When have you had a meaningful experience in a museum--either here at the Rosenbach or somewhere else? I like to joke that I was doomed to become a museum curator because at the age of five I would stand in front of the dinosaurs in the natural history museum and hold forth to anyone who would listen. Now it's U. S. Grant's letters and Bram Stoker's Dracula notes that no one can get me shut up about. But it's because I feel that connection and it excites me. What about you?

Kathy Haas is the Assistant Curator at the Rosenbach Museum & Library and the primary poster at the Rosen-blog

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