A guest post from Rachel Petts, Curatorial Assistant of Natural Sciences, sharing some of her highlights of the Museum’s recent trip to Washington as part of the University of Manchester’s Investing in Success scheme.
After an exciting but fleeting visit to New York, we all hopped on the train to Washington. We spent the next three days, visiting the Smithsonian museums and meeting with collegues from across the pond to learn more about exhibition development, public programming and their digital offer. There was a lot to see and do, but here are just some of my personal highlights.
First we visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture, to meet with Dr Rex Ellis, Associate Director of Curatorial Affairs and Elaine Nicholls, Senior Curator. The museum opened in September 2016 and has had 2 million visitors in 2 years and a real highlight of the trip was learning about how they have developed innovative programming. One example is their ‘A seat at the table’ events; these events provide a platform for audiences to consider challenging questions about race, identity, faith, and sexual orientation. They are evening events with a meal, a talk, lots of conversation and an opportunity for ideas exchange.
At Manchester Museum I am the Curatorial Assistant caring for the Zoology collections, so naturally I was very excited to visit the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Q?rius, their science education centre for pre-teens and teenagers was a fantastic space for learning, bringing out the museum’s science, researchers and collections from behind the scenes. It was very interactive and experimental learning was encouraged, and there was also a collections zone where you could handle objects and, using a barcode system, look up more information about an object.
On the second day we visited the National Museum of the American Indian and had an informative talk by Adrienne Smith, Manager of the ImagiNATIONS Activity Centre. The museum is dedicated to promoting the understanding of Native cultures of the Western hemisphere and it was fascinating to learn more about the collections; the museum stores have windows because the Native American cultures from which they the collections originate, believe the objects have life and need the sun. There is also a private prayer and blessing room in the stores.
An important part of any museum visit is the the cafe, and it was great to experience the museum’s Mitsitam Cafe which served tasty food with a great choice of seasonal cuisines from across the Western Hemisphere. Chef Freddie J. Bitsoie, is one of the few Native American chefs at the forefront of preparing, presenting and educating about foods indigenous to the Americas. It was great the ethos of the museum was extended to all aspects of the visitor experience, especially as food is such a defining part of culture and a great way to immerse yourself in a different culture.
We also met with Darren Milligan, Senior Digital Strategist with the Smithsonian Centre for Learning and Digital Access, and Meg Dattoria 3D digital specialist. It was interesting to find out how they have developed The Smithsonian Leaning Lab to make the Smithsonian Museums’ collections more accessible and readily available online as resources for educators. The Lab is a free, interactive platform for discovering millions of authentic digital resources, creating content with online tools, and sharing with an online community. We also visited the 3D digital lab and learnt about their digitisation programme, 3D printing and virtual reality. We also got to try out a virtual reality experience of the Apollo 11 command capsule, the spacecraft that carried astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon. The quality was amazing and you could see fine detail including the astronaut’s graffiti – take a look for yourself here.
The main highlight was to travel and to experience innovative museums with colleagues. Our group included staff from the Collections, Education and Learning teams as well as the Visitor Services Team. It was a great opportunity to build relationships across teams, gain insight and learn from each other.