Saturday, December 11, 2010

Behind the Scenes in Exhibit Development

Our goal of this blog is not only to share content about the history of western New York, but to also pull back the curtain on the exhibit development process.   The support of the Institute of Museum and Library Services has meant that the historical society has an opportunity to experiment with and learn about a number of new exhibit techniques that will take its work to a whole new level.

One of those techniques is the use of evaluation in planning the exhibit.  For a long time, museums believed that what they put out was right and that single point of view was what you, the viewer should just  passively absorb.  Picture yourself with a big funnel on top of your head where the museum poured in the knowledge--much like all education used to be.

But in recent years, museums have embraced the idea of front-end and formative evaluation as a way of learning about visitors and their interests.  It's focused around two critical ideas in museum work right now.  The first is free choice learning.  Unlike school, museums are places where you chose to go--and chose to learn.   Your choices of what to do in your free time are many and so learning in museums must not only be useful, it must be fun and engaging.   And at the same time, we each make our own meaning of what we see in a museum.  That's the second idea--the concept that it's a good thing that visitors make their own meaning of what they see.

Just think about what different people might think about the same object--say a flatiron.  A older homemaker might sigh with relief about no longer having to iron; a blacksmith might appreciate the ironwork; a child might wonder what the heck it's used for.   All those individual meanings are valid--but for interpretive exhibit developers, the challenge is find the way to tell a cohesive narrative that is meaningful to many kinds of visitors.

How do we do that?  Formative evaluation--which is just what it sounds like--evaluation while a project is formed--not just when it's finished.  Over the next few months, we'll be talking with focus groups about our exhibit concepts.  We'll want to know which characters interest you the most,  which are confusing, which seem important or irrelevant to the story of western New York.   We'll be interested in learning about what kinds of knowledge most visitors start with about the area's early history and what misconceptions might be out there.

It's an exciting part of an exhibit development process--every time evaluation happens I learn something new and surprising that informs my work as an exhibit developer.   To read more about another evaluation process, you can check out my blog The Uncataloged Museum.  And if you're interested in participating in a focus group, please let the staff at the historical society know!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Choices that Affected our History

Why do people make the choices they do?

This question, with regard to our 2012 exhibit on the History of Western New York: 1650-1850, has been the topic of ongoing conversations between myself and my education co-conspirator, Ray. We continue to contemplate the motivations for decisions and actions of Native Americans, Europeans and Americans acting on the stage that eventually becomes what we know today as western New York state.

Why did the Iroquois and the Huron struggle for supremacy in the fur trade with the Europeans?
Why did Jesuits risk injury and death to set up missions in such a, to them, forbidding place?
Why did some early colonists stay loyal to the British cause?
Why did American men and women willingly uproot their families to settle in the wilderness soon after the Revolution ended?

Our list of motivations for Native Americans, Europeans and Americans presently looks like this: Perhaps people are seeking:
Economic or political self determination, stability or survival
To serve and maintain political loyalties or undercut rivals
To advance community welfare and/or for personal gain
To uphold tradition and/or spiritual beliefs
Community/family acceptance
Personal freedom from government/religion/civilization
To leave an imprint on posterity
A new start or a new beginning
Influence or control over others
Professional opportunities
Adventure –the opportunity to test oneself or discover something unknown

We invite our readers to add to our list which continues to evolve and while you are contemplating motivations, think of this:
How does one’s perspective of time affect decision making?
How does one’s perspective of identity affect motivating factors?
Is the person first and foremost an individual or a member of a group?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Human Desire

Over the past week, Nancy, the musuem's Educator and Ray, our Distance Learning Developer have been hard at work defining a list of personalities that were active in what is now western New York during our study period, 1650 - 1850. They will have 15 or that we will begin researching their activities in detail to see how personal desires motovated them.

While they are digging into the musuem's archives and library to find people, I have been studying the concept of Human Desire. The exhibition will combine people and desires to develop conclusions on how human desires, such as greed forged the western New York we know today.

The concept of greed, acquiring more of some material posession that one could ever use or need, is something we all can relate to. Greed is always what the other person has. "You are greedy" Seldon will the healthy personality refer to them selves as being greedy. Greedy is not so much a desire but label given to those who have an unrelented pursuit of economic gain beyond what their society considers healthy.

Is greed good or bad? Only society can answer that question because societial norms regulate behavior. Maybe a little greed is good in some societies. In others, such as the Native American there was no ownership of land or property and being described as a greedy had a low threshold.

If we accept the premis that human nature in its essential qualities the same among all men then what specifically prompts some to pursue then what is it in people that motivate them to seek material posessions in excess of sociatial norms?

This leads to the age old sociological question, "Is man basically evil and his actions contrilled by his society's norms or is man basically good and it is society that corrupts and governs devient actions?

These are issues that we will use in defining our personalities who affected the early development of our region.

In addition to greed we will be looking at other behaviors, self preservation, control over others, fear of failure, and the like.

The exhibition will not only be a study into our region's past but a study of the sociology and norms of the times that regulated behaviors. What was considered greedy in 1650 may not be what is considered greedy in 1850. So we may be aiming at a moving target.

Friday, October 15, 2010

An interesting project, for sure

The Ontario County Historical Society is charged with preserving and promoting the history of western New York State. The charge was refined in our Strategic Plan that was adopted in 2007 and updated in 2009.

We operate a 10,000ft2 museum in Canandaigua, NY, that was chartered by the NYS Education Department in 1902. I am sure you can see why we were thrilled to be the recipient of a Museums for America Grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) in the fall of 2010 to develop an exhibition on the early history of what is now western New York. The exhibit will be examining how human desires affected the early development of western NY and shaped the region, as we know it today. The Exhibit will examine the period 1650 - 1850. It will largely focus on personalities active in the region during the period.

The exhibit is scheduled to open in the fall of 2012 but there is much work to be done.

We have been looking at the subject for about 18 months and have used NY Council on the Humanities grants and New York State Council on the Arts grants for museum advancement to fund the project. One of the aspects of the research I enjoy is the discussion with humanities scholars. From these discussions we have gained an understanding of the variety of issues of the time. The early discussions set us to work identifying the influential personalities that will be the subject of the exhibition.

There are several personalities that come to mind but the county's founder, Oliver Phelps is my personal favorite. As a Revolutionary War patriot he was a Procurement Officer in the Continental Army and boasted of having $1,000,000 dollars at one time. He and Nathanial Gorham, who participated in the Continental Congress purchased All of Western NY west of the 77th Meridian (Preemption Line) from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1789 and proceeded to sell the land.
That event took place in the middle of our timeframe. What happened before and after and who were the principal players? We will develop a list of 15 or so people and proceed to research their personal desires... such as Greed.

Stay tuned.