Friday, October 30, 2015

Filling Museums With Words and Language

The Heart's Map at Minnesota Children's Museum

Everyday words and language pour, spill, fly, flow, fill, infuse, inhabit, and animate museums. They are spoken, written, thought, imagined, gestured, recorded, remembered, and signed in interactions and on-line in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Arabic and the countless other languages of our communities.

Text Rain (Utterback)
Words name and describe objects, paintings, and phenomena. They help express how artwork makes us feel and forge connections with past experiences we remember. Narratives are often embedded in exhibits, sometimes explicitly as a part of framing the experience and sometimes loosely connecting experiences and ideas. Visitors read and hear the voices of inventors, settlers, writers, farmers, soldiers, immigrants, artists, and neighbors in famous speeches, newspaper headlines, founding documents, and letters. Museum professionals write texts and labels, catalogs, and scripts for films. Text Rain falls and memorable quotes punctuate museum walls. Using words and images, museums tell their stories to supporters, friends, funders, and their communities.

Words and language are ubiquitous. They welcome, guide, invite, instruct, and inspire children, youth, and adults in museum exhibits, programs, performances, tours, demonstrations, events, catalogs, services, and initiatives. Often, however, they do so incidentally rather than intentionally. But well beyond just getting visitors to read more text (or better written text) or listen to stories, museums can deliberately and actively engage visitors in acts of reading and writing, in thinking and making connections, and in deepening enjoyment.

Is encouraging museums to explore and develop opportunities that emphasize words and language inviting them to go off mission? Adding more to their plates? Becoming more like schools? I think not. In fact, words and language provide an impressive and promising set of opportunities, activities, and experiences capable of assisting museums in accomplishing their missions and goals.

The world of words and language is vast and largely underexplored in museums. This world encompasses basic tools for communication and expression; it is the driver of meaning and understanding; and it provides pleasure. Words and language can also be understood in broader, more flexible concepts and as metaphor. In Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language, elements (“Light on two sides”) can be combined to shape spaces to support routines, provide comfort, and bring people together. The 100 Languages of Children grounded in the Reggio pedagogy represents symbolic systems for expression, exploring relations, inventing, and learning.

Words and language help illuminate ideas, deepen a visitor’s understanding, broaden a view of the world, and increase a museum’s impact in many ways and scales.

Placing words and language at the heart of the museum. Some museums like historic homes of authors or The Newseum have words and language at their core as do museums of language.
• Treehouse Museum, Ogden UT focuses on family literacy, children’s literature and the arts and humanities. The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art is dedicated to inspiring a love of art and reading through picture books. At Bookworm Gardens stories remembered and imagined are found on 8 acres of woods, fields, and sunny glades. 

Growing 21st century learners. Three of the 7 IMLS Learning and Innovation Skills, Communication, Visual Literacy, and Basic Literacy, deal directly with words and language. Many museum incorporate these skills in their exhibits and programs. 
• Pre-literacy and early literacy skills are the focus of Minnesota Children’s Museum’s Storyland, Mississippi Children’s Museum’s Literacy Garden, and Louisiana Children’s Museum’s Talk & Play Center. In these settings, parents and caregivers are encouraged to talk with and think about the language they use with their children and its role in cultivating literacy. 
• Stepping Stones Museum for Children’s ELLI Lab School is a comprehensive, high quality language and literacy development preschool program for all children and their families
• Creative writing is part of Mia’s Creativity Academy.

Theodore Roosevelt 2 by Carrie Roy
Layering and thickening experiences with the power of words and language to intrigue, engage, and provoke thinking. Pairing words and images in unusual and beautiful ways can tap into visitor’s curiosity and interests as well as make complex information accessible.  
• Data artist Carrie Roy’s work distills literary works, letters, and other groupings of texts down to key concepts or vocabulary and explores them through art. Her Theodore Roosevelt 2 layers words and images based on a textual analysis of Roosevelt’s book to reveal regionally-related word choices.
• In her blog, Marianna Adams describes how the concept of collaborative writing inspired by Japanese renga poetry served as both an activity and embedded performance assessment. Exploring the Gardner Museum galleries, a group substituted verses for objects, spaces, or views using a set of words–rising, distant, enclosed, fold, release. The experience produced beautiful versions that evoked the spirit of Mrs. Gardner and data sources helpful in understanding the connections visitors make with the museum.
Deepening understanding of art, artifacts, current issues. Language used in unexpected ways and places can capture and concentrate visitor’s attention.
• The Getty invited visitors to write a Haiku poem about a selected drawing that used negative space. With multiple examples from the curator who had used Haiku, an un-rhymed three-line poem, for label copy, visitors composed Haiku of 17 syllables in lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables each.
• The Language of Conservation introduced poetry into the Audubon Zoo landscape in New Orleans (as well as in zoos in Milwaukee, Chicago, Little Rock, and Jacksonville) through a partnership of Poets House and the New Orleans Public Library. Lines like, “There is pleasure in these pathless woods” help deepen public awareness and appreciation of environmental issues through poetry.
• Prompts like “listen to an object speak" can generate attention, focus, and surprise while “Describe the place in which this diorama is set” can focus observation. Both are an opportunity to write.

Finding the museum’s voice. Language in its many forms is the voice of the museum about its mission, its audience, and with its community.
• Years ago a poet and a paper artist worked with children at Minnesota Children’s Museum to create The Heart’s Map. “I Am from Love” greets visitors as they enter the museum’s lobby and speaks powerfully to and about the children the museum serves and celebrates.This line has stayed with me for years: “I am from leaving someone. I am from coming to America and knowing nothing, everything. I am from Hmong and German and Senegalese.

• NEMA’s 2015 conference theme, The Language of Museums also points to the importance of recognizing the power of words and language in all aspects of a museum’s work.

Related Museum Notes Posts 
Learning + Literacy
Literacy At Play
Playing with...Words

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