Exhibitions and Visitors—Successful Collaborations.
June 3–5, 2010
In June 2010, Kathy Dwyer Southern, President & CEO of the National Children’s Museum, David Donath, President of the Woodstock Foundation, and Fund Program Director Hugh Southern, traveled to Novgorod, Russia at the invitation of the Russian State Museum and the Novgorod Regional Training Center for Workers of the Cultural Sphere to conduct a three day regional seminar on Exhibitions and Visitors — Successful Collaborations.
The seminar was organized to involve museum professionals in a series of activities and discussions focusing on attracting and involving the visitor in the museum through its exhibitions as well as visiting the region. The primary topics were overall characteristics of excellence for museums; exhibitions in the context of community; the exhibition development process; attracting young visitors; and cultural heritage tourism for Novgorod.
The team met with a number of key people during their visit both in Novgorod and St. Petersburg, including: Natalia Kuleshova, Deputy Director, Scientific and Enlightening Work, Russian Museum; Tamara Yakoleva, Acting Head, Department of Art Museums, Russian Museum; Andrey Astafjev, Director of the State Educational Institution, Novgorod Training Center; and Yulia Kolomitseva, Director of the State Museum of Artistic Culture for Novgorod.
Irina Bliznets of the Russian Museum provided essential coordinating support throughout, as well as outstanding hospitality that helped make the visit a delight, start to finish. Olga Reva provided excellent translation, and was well received by all participants. Hugh Southern was interviewed about the seminar on Novgorod radio. The seminar was held during the annual Novgorod folk festival, which attracts international artists and visitors.
Thirty professionals from area museums, a center for the blind, and the local tourist agency attended the seminar at the Regional Training Center.
Day One: Museums And Their Context In The Community
Following official welcomes, the Russian State Museum presented an overview of their work, and Hugh Southern provided a summary of The Fund’s current activities. Ms. Southern and Mr. Donath then invited the participants to pair up and interview each other, followed by a presentation to the full group as a way to begin to get to know each other.
Using the American Association of Museums’ recently published book, Characteristics of Excellence for U.S. Museums, they led a dialogue and discussion about these characteristics and why they are important for successful museums. The dialogue provoked a robust discussion about the importance of some of these characteristics, especially why a clear mission for the museum is important, and what public trust and accountability really mean.
Following lunch, Mr. Donath offered a virtual tour of a number of European World Heritage Sites (Novgorod is such a site) which he had recently visited, and the role and importance museums are to these sites. The group then attended an opening at the Regional Training Center’s Regional House of Folk Art, and the day concluded with small group work discussing the role of museums in Heritage Sites and in developing cultural heritage tourism.
Day Two: Developing Exhibits And Attracting Visitors
Ms. Southern provided an overview of the creation of the National Children’s Museum and the role visitors have played in the development of the museum. She outlined the museum’s exhibit development process. A full discussion followed of the “appropriate role of the visitor in exhibition development,” a new concept for many participants.
After a break, she divided the participants into five groups, and asked them to develop an exhibition on one or more topics related to the city of Novgorod. The group was to determine a topic, who the audience is, what the audience should learn from the exhibit, what constitutes the exhibit, and what expertise is needed, the development of a sample audience questionnaire, and the development of a preliminary script.
Following lunch Ms. Southern presented Attracting Young People to Museums through Exhibits and Programs. This session used current research on the four universal themes of childhood: attachment/separation; attainment of power; social interaction; and mastery and learning. She then explored how these themes are applied in the commercial sector, and how they can be used by museums to engage and attract new visitors.
Following a break, the exhibit groups reconvened to use materials Ms. Southern had shipped to develop simple program activities specifically created for young visitors and to complete the development of their exhibits. The groups then presented their exhibits to all seminar participants for critique and discussion.
The work was imaginative, and the discussion provocative, especially around responsibilities relating to access. It was clear from the discussion that special needs visitors provide real challenges for these museums, which they do not feel able to address, and that the special needs community has become more proactive in expecting solutions from museums. This issue clearly surfaced as a potential future seminar topic. That evening, the seminar participants attended a performance at the folk festival.
Day Three: Winning Support, Cultural Heritage Tourism
Mr. Donath began the day with a presentation on Billings Farm and how it has become a leader in advancing cultural heritage tourism efforts in Vermont. He stressed the fundamental importance of collaboration among cultural institutions and the benefit that is derived from successfully achieving this goal. He provided a number of excellent examples of cultural tourism efforts that have been effective in the U.S. and at World Heritage Sites in Europe.
He then reconvened the small groups and charged them with creating a cultural heritage tourism plan for Novgorod. The groups shared their very insightful work with each other in an excellent discussion. The day was concluded with evaluation forms and the presentation of participant certificates.
The balance of group work, presentation, discussion and dialogue was well received throughout the seminar. Participants particularly enjoyed the group activities and produced thoughtful and humorous presentations. All participants were fully engaged and gave the seminar very strong evaluations; many noted an interest in future Fund seminars.
Future topics suggested in the evaluations included further exploration into attracting young visitors, the creation of associations and coalitions, current museum technology, and, as previously mentioned, an in-depth look at how to achieve better accessibility for visitors.