by Danielle Hodes
In today’s world of high tech, interactive, multisensory, blockbuster museum exhibitions, historic house museums (HHMs) sadly seem to be left in the (proverbial historic) dust. Their limited resources can render investing in fancy new interactive technologies out of reach, while at the same time they grapple with what steps to take in order to provide an inclusive, immersive experience that stands out in our immediate gratification society. And the static, ‘no touching’ approach most HHMs use is not exactly welcoming, especially to those visitors who might already feel a little out of their element.
As a result, many historic house museums are trying to figure out how they can bring in visitors with so many other leisure activities available vying for their free time. They’re grappling with issues like
What is the purpose of a museum visit?
Who is the museum for?
How can museums best serve a diverse audience?
And perhaps the biggest question—what exactly is a museum “experience” in society today?
There is at least one site (besides our own Lewis Latimer House) that might serve as a good example for the other historic homes. The Jane Addams Hull-House Museum in Chicago proposes an interesting solution to this problem through their new Slow Museum Project. Sounds boring, I know, but stick with me here.
This endeavor is part of the Innovation Lab for Museums, a MetLife-funded program offered by EmcArts and the Center for the Future of Museums, which is an incubator for fostering “programmatic and organizational innovation in the museum field.”
They believe that a “slower” approach, which focuses on the quality and meaningfulness of a visitor’s experience, increases the museum’s value in many ways. These new approaches can provide more personal experiences, improve community partnerships, and help the museum gather more detailed feedback to evaluate their programs. All of these outcomes can help the museum become a more sustainable and effective institution.
Working with the Slow Museum Project, the folks at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum are exploring what it would mean for museums to be a place of escape from people’s hectic everyday lives where they can slow down, relax, and enjoy themselves. Visitors are encouraged to take their time and explore ideas through individual reflection as well as through interaction with other visitors and staff.
The project shifts the museum experience from one dominated by institutional (and sometimes dry) facts to taking a single bit of that information and slowly growing a participatory, reflective experience.
Some of the programs they have planned to help institute this slower approach include “meandering choose-your-own adventure unguided tours, an artist-made reflection room with meditative and musical components…kickball or communal eating into all public programs…and more.” These types of programs encourage connecting with others as well as a museum’s content. Out-of-the-box approaches like these are also more accessible to a wider variety of people, especially those who might not be as interested in traditional museum experience.
One ongoing project at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum invites artists to create labels in their preferred medium for objects in the collection. For one object, Artist Terri Kapsalis wrote a 40-page poem as an alternative label, however the length presented the museum with a serious problem. When the average visitor only spends several seconds with any given object, how would the museum give both the object and the artist’s work the attention they deserved? The museum found its answer by inviting visitors to sit and drink a cup of tea while reading the poem. The relaxed atmosphere gave visitors ample time to really think about the work and discuss it with others.
So how does this relate to what we’re doing here in Flushing?
The LatimerNOW project also seeks to provide nontraditional experiences beneficial to both the visitor and institution. The possibilities of a slower approach focused on strengthening community involvement and producing personally meaningful experiences has tremendous potential to work in the newly revamped Latimer House. (We also plan to keep a keep a close eye on the exciting and innovative approach taken by the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum.)