Monday, October 20, 2014

On Being Creative in a Changing Museum World

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

I think we're at the beginning of a museum renaissance.  Museums, both small and large, are being flooded with incredibly creative, well-trained professionals who are continuously challenging the status quo.  Part of this shift is tied directly to the economic crash of 2009 and the ensuing "Great Recession."  Funding is tight and museums have to work with less than in the past.  We're facing greater competition for the money that is still out there.  In order to get ahead, you need to stand out.  In the past few years, I have seen many innovative programs and exhibits come out of the museum world that prove that history is not dusty old stuff and the boring names and dates you learned in high school.  History is awesome stories, new collaborations, and it's fun.

CCHS is a small museum with limited resources, but I know that we have the tools necessary to be an innovative leader in this renaissance.  I'm grateful to have colleagues who have the training, the smarts, and the delightfully offbeat sensibilities that are helping us start some really cutting-edge initiatives for a museum of our size.  I'm going to use this blog post to explain (and brag a little about) some of our new plans to better serve our community and make our mark in the museum world.

Dogapalooza and Catstravaganza
Our collaboration with the Chemung County Humane Society and SPCA is something I really pushed for from the beginning.  I volunteer there and specialize in animal history, so I saw a natural connection between our two organizations (plus they've been in our community since 1891!).  When I posed the idea of doing an event together, fortunately everyone was onboard with trying out this non-traditional idea.  We started with Catstravaganza, a celebration of cat history and contemporary cat issues, in February 2014.  We held it at the museum and had almost 200 people come to the museum in 3 hours.  Those are huge numbers for us.  We also featured artwork by 1,500 local students. 

Enjoying the students' cat-themed art at Catstravaganza.  Come see the dog art at Dogapalooza.
Capitalizing on this success, we're hosting Dogapalooza on November 8, 2014 from 12-3pm.  This will be similar to Catstravaganza, but obviously focusing on canines this time.  We'll have crafts that will teach visitors about local historically famous dogs (like my favorite, Colonel), there will be a police K-9 demonstration, videos, adoptable dogs, artwork by over 2,000 students, and more.
The folks at the SPCA are wonderful and have been great to work with.  So far, we've also put two exhibits in their lobby that you can see when you stop in to visit the dogs and cats. 
Dog history exhibit on display at the Chemung County Humane Society and SPCA
History They Didn't Teach You In School
We're starting a new program series, playfully called, "The History They Didn't Teach You in School."  The first installment is "Scandal!" on December 12, 2014 from 5:30-7.  These will be guided tours of the museum where we'll tell visitors all of the fun stories we don't normally get to tell in exhibits.  Like our Ghost Walk, we want our visitors have so much fun learning about history that they don't even realize that it's educational.

Medical Exhibit Interactives
In November, our new exhibit, "To Do No Harm: Medicine in Chemung County," will open.  The exhibit itself will be great because we have many fascinating, sometimes gruesome, medical artifacts that we'll be able to show-off.  However, what I'm personally most excited about is our interactive component.  At the start of the exhibit, you will be able to choose 1 of 9 stories that will guide you through the exhibit.  These are all accounts of a fictional historical resident of Chemung County who faces a medical problem.  Like those great choose-your-own adventure books, your story will guide you through the exhibit as you decide which doctor you will see, what medicines to take, and more.  We're making a push to do more programming and exhibit work that will give visitors an immersive historical experience.
Uh oh, it's the 1800s and you broke a bone! What do you do? Follow our interactive stories in our medical exhibit to find out!

Mark The Mammoth
You may have seen our adorable new Museum Ambassador, Mark the Mammoth, on our social media accounts or in person at the museum.  Mark represents our first foray into Twitter (you can follow him @MarkTheMammoth) and also a fun, informal way to connect with the public.  We put Mark in costumes (we just had staff contest to design a Halloween costume for Mark- congratulations to the winner, Erin) and have him make friends in the community.  Through Twitter, we have been able to join an international community of museums.  Mark routinely talks to other museums and museum mascots (there are surprisingly a lot of them on Twitter) about Chemung County.  Many of these people will never visit the museum, but Mark's Twitter account is a way to share our collections with these folks, anyway.  Mark has chatted about rain boots with a teddy bear mascot for an Estonian toy museum and about exhibit design with a giant extinct Irish deer from a UK museum.  We also participate in the weekly #MewseumMonday, where museums share images of their feline-themed collections. While these encounters may seem small, they are not only telling people about what we're doing, but they are also providing us with an endless source of ideas for programs and exhibits.  Rule #1 for museum creativity: when you see something good that someone else is doing, steal it for yourself!  

Mark pretends to be in Hawaii.  This costume comes courtesy of Mark's summer fashion designer, 9 year-old Ada.
This is just a sampling of the new ideas we're trying.  Now this doesn't mean that our traditional offerings, like lectures or exhibit openings, are disappearing.  These have long been the backbone of museum programming, and for good reason.  However, we are having fun trying to diversify our programs.  Innovation keeps the museum from becoming stale.  We're also always looking for suggestions from you.  What would you like to see offered at the museum?  How can we better serve you?  Be creative!


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