At left, an image from my 2012 trip to the Museum Boerhaave.
7. You've no idea what you're looking at // New programs and tech let you learn and look seamlessly
For many people, visiting museums can be intimidating. Words like “style,” “movement,” “aesthetic,” “composition,” all have their own contexts when talking about art, and many historical and scientific objects, without context, can seem like baffling puzzles. You may not even know where to begin! But museum staffers, curators, and educators, know this—that’s why, over the past decade, many museums have worked hard to update their wall labels and printed materials, to make content more accessible over the web, and to present interactive programs that create direct connections between people and objects.
At the Barnes Museum in downtown Philadelphia, young people and families can become “art detectives” solving the Riddle of the Room, a 2013 MUSE Award-winning gallery program that encourages looking closely to decode and understand the meanings carried inside still-life paintings. Educational and fun, activities like these make it possible to learn while looking. Another MUSE winner can be found right across town at the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology: in 2012, their exhibition on Mayan Calendars featured an interactive touch-screen kiosk designed by BlueCadet that seamlessly demonstrated the complex Mayan writing system and even allowed visitors to write their own glyphs! With this kind of innovative programming, museums have become more accessible than ever, offering new experiences for old and young, and finding new ways to engage with objects and collections that might have otherwise seemed too daunting.
8. The interactive displays are useless, and often out of order // Engaging interactive designs immerse you in exhibitions
With the example of UPenn’s Glyph Writing Interactive, as well as other innovative kiosks recently developed for the Cleveland Museum of Art (The Sculpture Lens) and the History Colorado Center (Time Machines), it seems that museums have responded to the call for interactivity with a new wave of technology solutions that embrace creativity, play, and connectivity.
Beyond touchscreens, new immersive exhibitions are blurring the lines between “kiosk” and “environment,” like the Adler Planetarium’s pioneering “The Universe, a Walk Through Space and Time,” where visitors can zoom through high-definition images from the world’s most precise telescopes, and even send themselves a postcard at the speed by which light travels from another galaxy! There are entire firms devoted to bringing new interactive technology and better interfaces to museums, like the Ideum group which has designed exhibits and materials for NASA, the California Science Center, and the Miami Science Museum. These useful, helpful, and exciting new tools have done a lot to bridge the gap between interested audiences and museum collections.
9. Screaming children
10. Their parents
11. There's nothing fun for adults // Tailored events make for a perfect visit
The American Museum of Natural History seems like the perfect place for a family outing: dinosaur skeletons, meteorites, taxidermied elephants and lots of big, exciting exhibits with kid-scaled kiosks and fun activities in their Discovery Room. But after hours, this museum becomes a playground for adults, too, with programs like the SciCafe—a cocktail event where adults can meet science professionals in casual conversation—or their Adventures in the Global Kitchen program, which offers tastings and classes in beer, chocolate, and global cuisine! Finding the right event, tour, or special program can be an opportunity for adults to learn a new skill, indulge a sweet tooth, or meet other folks their own age who love museums, too! Even the most child-friendly museum may have a ‘second life’ as a modern and exciting hub for grown-ups.
If your idea of fun doesn’t include large groups of excited kids peppering their parents with questions, take a deep breath and check the museum calendar for kid-themed activity dates and times. Many museums host preschool or ‘mommy and me’ activities during mid-morning, while school groups may arrive on certain days for camp activities or after-class special events. Quieter moments may include early mornings and late in the afternoon, when most large groups have already departed. When in doubt, call visitor services! Most museums have a good sense of their busy times, and may be able to graciously suggest the best hours for a low-key visit.
To be continued....