Museums: from Appealing to Essential

Sometimes museums get caught up in strategizing how to be attractive (or interesting, or relevant) to their audiences when a more helpful framing of the problem would be to ask what can make them more essential.

What’s the difference?

Imagine a library closure: parents scrambling for expensive school books, job seekers struggling to access their applications, anyone who doesn’t own a computer blocked from checking their email. Devastating, right? Now imagine if your museum was to close–would the impact be as critical? The volume of complaints you can expect to receive reflects your institution’s attractiveness, whereas the gravity of the complaints reflects its essentialness.

Unlike libraries, most museums aren’t inherently essential to their communities. Instead, they focus on attracting visitors in order to compete with other community spaces for attention and revenue. But is it really too ambitious to think that these museums could become essential to their communities if that was their primary goal?

Tips for becoming essential

Connect to local issues. I like to picture a state or regional museum that gets its inspiration from local news. In this example, the newspapers tell us that our county has had a critical shortage of nurses since the pandemic. The regional museum responds by producing an exhibition that investigates the topic–how and why did this problem come to be? Why is it worse in our county than in neighboring ones? What do current and former nurses in the area have to say about the issue? Going beyond what the newspaper coverage could offer, the museum offers artifacts that provide supporting evidence, programming bringing in subject matter experts who speak about the issue from all sides, community organizers who connect and rally visitors to advocate for change, medics who train people on first aid they can do at home to relieve strain on hospital ERs, and so on. The museum has now become the place where anyone can come together to help solve this crisis in their community.

Lean into what makes your take unique. How might a science museum that wants to do an exhibition on climate change think about making it more essential to visitors? The topic itself is essential, but what would make the museum a critical part of the visitor’s engagement with the topic–that is, what can the museum provide for visitors that they can’t already get on the internet or someplace else?

One option would be to offer hands-on learning activities that give personalized feedback. Urban gardening is a great practice for sustainability, but some people will need an in-person tutorial to get started. Most people know they should recycle, but how many feel confident in their ability to sort their recycling correctly? The museum could test visitors’ sorting accuracy via an interactive and give them suggestions for how to improve. Perhaps they could also show a model of what environmental impact each visitor’s specific errors would have over a set period of time if not corrected.

Collaborate with community problem-solvers. As an aficionado of pet rabbits, I once had an opportunity to rethink a petting zoo at a science center. My proposal for the rabbit exhibit included partnering with local animal shelters to house adoptable rabbits in indoor playpens that visitors could enter for supervised one-on-one socialization. There could also be craft activities for visitors to make toys for the rabbits out of recycled paper and cardboard. These minor changes would preserve the function and appeal of the original petting zoo while adding an essential solution to real community problems (uninformed people dump their pets, wreaking havoc on local ecosystems, and shelters get overcrowded and under-resourced in their ability to supply enrichment). Plus the museum would gain a permanent place in the hearts of any adopters who happened to meet their new family member through their experience visiting. Being essential makes you more attractive to visitors, but not necessarily the other way around.

Brown rabbit in a rectangular play pen with clear sides. Playpen has carpeted flooring, a litter box, a hay feeder, and a pet bed.
Wouldn’t you rather visit a rabbit here than in a traditional petting zoo? And it’s better for the bunny. Image courtesy of Blue Clover Rabbitry

So if you haven’t already, try asking yourself of your current project, “How can this help my museum be more essential to its audiences?” I’d love to hear about whether or not it was a helpful exercise for unlocking new ideas.

What I learned from my favorite exhibit of 2022

My favorite exhibition I saw this year was Great Whales: Up Close and Personal at the Royal Ontario Museum (“the ROM”) in Toronto. Here’s my attempt to summarize key takeaways from its whale of an achievement.

  1. Say who’s speaking.

      Press the mute button on the all-knowing institutional voice and pass the mic to your subject experts. These intro panels with photos, bios, and quotes made me feel like I was getting a private walking tour of the exhibit.

      Exhibit intro wall panel that gives pictures and paragraph biographies for three experts who will speak throughout the exhibition.     Wall labels feature quotes from experts, including the expert's picture and a description of their relationship to the content.

    • Really include community stakeholders.

      As an outsider looking in, I’m not qualified to judge whether this exhibition was a “good” example of community involvement. But I’d like to recognize that the voices of Indigenous experts were utilized throughout the exhibit (not just acknowledged as a one-off at the beginning or end), and tobacco offering stations spoke directly to Indigenous visitors.

      Statement crediting input of Indigenous community experts near the start of the exhibit

    • Put numbers into perspective.

      “We lost 10% of a species, and that’s equivalent to humanity losing all the people of North and South America” says a lot more than “we lost 10% of the species.”

    • Take your labels from prose to poetry using the literary devices of consonance and assonance.

      Notice how many words in this label have “d” sounds, either with the letter “d” actually in the word or phonetically with double “t”s.

      “Dies…body….dense…bottom…down…cold, dark…depths. Does matter? Hundreds…deep-sea…decades.” (13/64 total words in the label = 20% of word count)

      We can do the same exercise with “L” sounds:

      “Whale fall…whale…falls…miles…whale…fall….minerals…cold…large whale fall…. (12/64 = 19% of word count)

      And “s” sounds:

      “Dies…its…is…so…dense…falls…ocean…sometimes…miles…brings…nutrients…minerals…ecosystem….ocean depths. Does…support hundreds…deep-sea species decades (21/64 = 33% of word count)

      Any of these combinations could stand alone as a poem in its own right, abstractly conveying the label’s message. Together, they flow into a readable label without being heavy-handed with alliteration.

    • Find piece harmony with your objects.

      One thing I learned from taking chess classes in high school (besides that I’m no good at chess), is the concept of “piece harmony.” There’s something that
      just looks right about a chess board where all the pieces are positioned to support each other. No knight is left unprotected, no pawn blocks another’s path.

      Great Whales gave us a masterful example of positioning the smallest objects in the exhibit (these specimen jars) right before one of the most shockingly large objects (the whale heart). The visitor doesn’t just read the message that big whales support small life–they feel it in their surroundings.


    • Answer the obvious question.

      “Why are they called GREAT whales?”

      “Is that REAL?”

      If there’s a question everyone will be asking, confront it head-on and answer it.


    • Speak to hope and action.

      Fear of loss catches attention, but doesn’t sustain long-term motivation. Inspire people to make a positive change by suggesting specific ways to help.


      Share relatable success stories.

    • Be up close and personal.

      The subtitle of the exhibition was “Up Close and Personal,” and that’s precisely where it took me.

      It taught me what we have in common with whales so I could relate to them as neighbors.

      It used sensory cues like smell to put me in the action of a salvage expedition.

      It even turned the assumed appeal of “up close and personal” on its head.

      No part of the exhibit stayed with me longer than the revelation that so few North Atlantic right whales remain, we can know them each by name and picture.



    Sites of slavery shouldn’t be called “historic homes.”

    Before white supremacists converged on Thomas Jefferson’s hometown earlier this month, Jefferson was already enmeshed in a controversy about the news that Monticello is restoring a room to include more of Sally Hemings’ story. Widely circulated pieces by journalists like Britni Danielle and Shaun King have since responded to the rhetoric of calling Hemings Jefferson’s “mistress” and American society’s clemency for Jefferson.

    While focused on Monticello, these critiques broach an issue at greater scale throughout the United States. We should be talking more about the problem that nearly all historic sites that once had slavery were preserved not because they were sites of slavery, but because they were impressive homes of white slaveowners.1

    Many historic sites have begun teaching about enslaved peoples through tours, special programs, and signage—but these efforts remain auxiliary to the core mission of educating about the historic home and homeowners. Monticello doesn’t even mention slavery in its mission statement. In case you’re wondering, Mount Vernon doesn’t either.

    Briefly set aside any familiarity you have with historic homes and take a few moments to consider how absurd this convention really is. Here’s an exercise you might do:

    // Think of a site of crimes against humanity outside the United States that you can visit as a tourist today. Could you imagine this place:

    • Having been saved as a historic site for a reason besides remembering the crimes against humanity and people harmed there?
    • Being marketed and most commonly known as the home or workplace of [name of oppressor]?
    • Telling visitors that [name of oppressor] had a complicated relationship with the people they harmed, and visitors can opt to take a separate tour about those people while they’re there?
    • Selling postcards and other souvenirs showcasing the beauty of their architecture or landscaping?
    • Hosting weddings, anniversaries, baby showers, and other joyful events?
    • Being mirrored by sites matching these criteria throughout its nation or region with a frequency and ubiquity comparable to historic sites in the United States that once held enslaved people?

    If you’ve answered “yes” to all of these, I’d be grateful if you would comment. As it stands, I’m unaware of a phenomenon quite like this existing anyplace else. //

    Being a white person, I can’t understand or speak for the stories of enslaved people. Yet, being a Jewish person, some part of the mistreatment of these sites feels personal. A Holocaust museum is meaningless if the nation it’s in denies reverence to its own sites of oppression. If all oppression is interconnected, then disrespect for one site of crimes against humanity must put the authority of all of them at stake.

    Influenced by scholarship and movements led by museum workers of color, many historic homes (Monticello included) have set aims to tell their sites’ “complete” stories by integrating more information about enslaved people into their interpretations.2 These efforts are often called steps in the right direction, but I’m concerned they may be off-target in addressing the problem. The issue isn’t that these sites are failing to tell the whole story. It’s that they’re still telling the wrong story.

    Maris Jones once wrote, “Our trauma is not an accessory.” Her sentiment, while expressed in a different context, makes plain why inserting stories of slavery into the existing narrative is insufficient. If Black stories can “complete” a site telling white stories, but not the other way around, then the Black stories are being used to accessorize the white stories at their own expense. Treating Black people as supporting characters for white people is counterproductive to teaching about slavery. Similarly, trauma isn’t a puzzle piece that completes the oppressor’s story. It doesn’t exist to complicate visitors’ understanding of the esteemed slave owner. Museums and historic homes shouldn’t be talking about the slave owners in the first place.

    Aside from the moral question of whether these people deserve to be remembered, there’s a tactical question of whether interpreting them through their property is even a tenable mission for historic homes. It’s not always obvious to me how seeing a famous figure’s house and personal effects helps visitors understand the significance of their work and contributions to society. By comparison, interpreting the evidence the house bears to crimes against humanity and the lives of people who were enslaved there is unquestionably relevant to the place being preserved.

    My most recent experience touring one of these houses happened about a year ago. The docent began with a biography of the (white) homeowner, gave a who’s-who of consecutive (white) tenants, and concluded with a tour of the house’s slave quarters. It took me some time to process how readily it was taken for granted that white people belonged in the story. If the homeowner is so unknown that a docent has to tell visitors who they were, there’s a good chance they don’t need to be mentioned at all.

    Some would probably argue that visitor expectations make omitting narratives about slave owners impossible—anyone touring a house would want to know who owned it. But visitor expectations of hearing this trivia more often indicate when sites are failing to define or communicate their real significance. Many docents at natural history and art museums, for instance, don’t include details like who built the museum and what year it was built in their tour scripts. When the mission to teach about art or natural history is clear to visitors, they are more prepared to expect that a tour will focus on these subjects.

    To clarify their purpose for visitors (and staff), historic homes might reexamine what 1-2 aspects of their site most make it worth saving. In doing so, I think many would find a gross discrepancy between the people they’ve been featuring and those who matter.

    So what does Monticello’s mission tell us about how the site perceives its value? It’s unlikely that seeing Thomas Jefferson’s bed and tea cups teaches visitors much about the Declaration of Independence or his Presidency. This suggests the site is still telling his story out of belief that it’s important for people to know who he was as a person and, by extension, what kind of person founded America.

    Herein lies the problem: there are hundreds of historic homes all exhibiting the wealth and power of the same kind of person across the country. Even if all of these sites individually have good intent, collectively they convey that only this kind of person could have had the means to make an impact worthy of national memory.

    We can remember this when we ask why white visitors are drawn to seeing the wealth of these sites even when artifacts of that wealth don’t serve the educational mission the site claims. We can remember it when we ask why knowing what kinds of linens Jefferson owned is considered valuable information in the course of American history. And we can remember it when we ask why white supremacists found symbolic value in meeting at Jefferson’s hometown.

    Peggy McIntosh once described an example of white privilege: “When I am told about our national heritage or about ‘civilization,’ I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.” If being told that people of your color built your nation is an indicator of privilege, then sites like Monticello must ask what it means to be the ones doing the telling.

    1. Nearly, not all. There are some notable exceptions, such as the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana.
    2. It would be impossible to cite all influential scholarship and movements here, but a few examples include Black Lives Matter, #MuseumsRespondToFerguson, #BlkTwitterstorians, Visitors of Color, The Incluseum, Museum Hue, and the Brown Girls Museum Blog. For more examples, see this list of publications compiled by La Tanya S. Autry.

    Special thanks to Camille Bethune Brown, nikhil trivedi, and Jordan Thibodeau for their helpful input for writing this post.

    The thing great museum experiences have in common

    Have you ever compared your top few museum experiences to find what they had in common?

    I remember a conversation like this coming up in a discussion at the National Museum of American History when I was an intern there in 2012. Curators throughout the room raised their hands to share which museum they thought “does it best.” After the fifth person said the US Holocaust Memorial & Museum (USHMM), someone said something different. “Sure, we’d love to use the USHMM’s model,” they said, “but they only have one story they need to tell whereas we have hundreds.”

    Storytelling is a hot topic in museums now, and I’m sure it’s part of why many of the curators admired the USHMM experience. After all, the museum is a linear path on a timeline telling the global story of events preceding the Holocaust to its aftermath. Then there are more personal stories worked in, such as the cards visitors receive describing a person from the time period and revealing their story as the exhibition progresses.

    I’m a fan of the museum, but I’m unconvinced that its impact has much of anything to do with its storytelling. Plenty of museums and exhibitions have done a remarkable job of telling stories, but those weren’t the first examples jumping to curators’ minds in the meeting. My theory on what makes the USHMM stand out is the universally perplexing nature of its topic. At some point, everyone who learns about genocide experiences a sense of bewilderment about how, even when empowered by democracy, people can do such evils to other people. In other words, the USHMM isn’t effective because it’s somehow better than all other museums at telling stories or because it only has one story to tell. It’s because its visitors all share one very powerful question.

    In searching my mental archives of exhibitions that have held meaning for me over the years, I found this central element of a “universally human” question to be a common thread. The title of this blog pokes a bit of fun at how dinosaurs are crowd-pleasers and the ultimate museum fail-safe. But dinosaurs fit this pattern too. Who hasn’t held a question, at some point in their lives, about what the world was like before humans or what other great beings exist(ed) besides us?

    Another example, the recent Wonder exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum tapped into the question of why do we seek, wonder, and marvel at things beyond ourselves. In visiting the exhibition, I found a place and time to meditate on the question I had previously only experienced as a fleeting curiosity. Each new artwork and gallery challenged and expanded the theories that I had built in the one before.

    I’m not sure whether this idea holds value for museums. Many already theme their exhibitions around questions. However, I’d argue that it’s less common for these questions to be relevant to all visitors (contributing to systemic exclusion of undervalued audiences). It’s also less common for orgs to choose these questions because visitors are already asking them. Often the opposite is true; exhibition developers hope to open visitors’ minds to new ideas and enable them to ask deeper, more informed questions. All of that in consideration, maybe visitor research would reveal there are no such questions that everyone asks, and my own biases distort my perspective on the universality of the questions I listed as examples here.

    What I can surmise at a personal level is that the most memorable exhibitions I’ve seen aren’t the ones that have told me stories, or taught me things, or inspired me to ask new questions. They’re the ones that let me enter and leave with the same question, but provided a well-stocked sanctuary for asking it again.