Saturday, May 8, 2010

Road Rage

I haven't started my internship yet.  I'm not in Detroit... or even the Midwest yet.  But I have something that needs to be discussed.

While driving up I-75 this afternoon, somewhere between Chattanooga and Knoxville, TN, I saw a billboard.  Now, I had been looking at billboards non-stop for about 7 hours at this point but one still managed to catch my eye.  It was for a Titanic "exhibition" in Pigeon Forge, TN. 

Now, I have been to Pigeon Forge.  In Pigeon Forge, there are no less than 20 go-kart tracks, with miniature golf courses and "old-timey" photo booths interspersed between them.  Pigeon Forge is also home to the infamous Dollywood.  Nowhere in Pigeon Forge did I ever see anything that resembled a museum.

I was unable to snap a photo of the billboard because I was driving, but I managed to find a similar image on their website-- now that I am safely at my hotel in Knoxville.

The billboard I saw on I-75 featured this same woman.  However, she was gesturing toward an image of the ship as if to say, "Welcome aboard!" with a big, toothy grin... something similar to this:

There are so many things I find appalling about this (both the billboard and the "exhibition") that I think it would be best to just make a list.
  1. Who is Steve Casuco?  I too saw the Titanic exhibition in Chicago, and much like the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., it combined educational tactics that can engage visitors of all ages and education levels with a general sense of reverence and respect for the massive loss of life that the exhibition commemorates.  I can certainly acknowledge that there are other aspects to a Titanic exhibition than tragedy alone.  There are great feats of engineering, environmental issues, social stratigraphy, and marine science that all warrant discussion within the context of such an exhibition.  However, these things must be approached with a certain amount of sensitivity, and the exhibition that I visited in Chicago achieved this with resounding success.  As a child, I was engaged (as was my father, who was with me) by holding on to a "boarding pass" throughout the exhibit, which allowed me to become invested in the life of an actual Titanic passenger.  This boarding pass is the only thing I could possibly cite as a "gimmick"
  2. Why is the woman on the billboard smiling?  She is dead.  This woman is dressed as a maid of some kind, and thus most likely did not survive the sinking of the Titanic.  Although I am fairly certain that this was not the intent of the designers behind it, this ad strikes me as a kind of mockery.  Imagine a theme-park modeled after a Katrina-stricken New Orleans, in which you would be greeted by a woman standing on a rooftop, smiling and waving towel to greet you.  I find this kind of characterization-- turning a shipwreck victim into a mascot-- to be completely tasteless and lacking in any kind of educational value.
  3. Some of the "activities" that accompany this "exhibition" seem highly inappropriate.  Weddings?  Really?  If that's not enough, you can also "Send an SOS signal from the ship's wireless communications room".  I could even get behind a hands-on component that deals with Morse code and early wireless communication... but does it have to be an SOS?  Something about that strikes me as being a mockery of real events.
After all of that, I found the website to have one redeeming quality: their "Education" section was very comprehensive.  They claim to have activities for math, science, geography, and language arts / social studies lessons.  While the math and geography activities were a bit fluffy, the science activities weren't bad, and the language arts / social studies activities left some room for critical thinking and discussion, which is great.

I see this as being a "lowest common denominator" issue.  When groups of kids are visiting the "exhibition" with teacher guidance, they are presented with opportunities for reflection, critical thinking, discussion, and sensory engagement.  Yet, when the same "exhibition" is marketed to the general public, it is portrayed as a kitchy, fun, day trip that has no connection to the catastrophic event on which it is based.

I would like my peers' input on this.  Am I being overly critical of a simple roadside attraction?  Or is the Pigeon Forge Titanic a prime example of what can go horribly wrong with "blockbuster" museum exhibitions?  Also-- thoughts on this?

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Assignment

This morning, I recieved the final word on what I'll be doing this summer and it didn't come a moment too soon.  Right now, I'm in the process of packing two months worth of clothes (and as many shoes) into my little Jeep, and getting ready for tomorrow's cross-country trek back to Detroit.

So here's the lowdown on my intern assignment:

The American Association of Museum Directors is offering its members the opportunity to develop maps that depoct the educational outreach of the museum. What geographic areas are being reached? What economic demographics are being reached? These are great maps -- sort of like weather maps -- color-coded to show the extent or density of contact.

The DIA is positioning itself to go out with a ballot initiative in 2011 or 2012, in which we will ask voters to approve a millage tax that would give us a sustainable source of funding, and allow our fundraising to go towards building endowment, rather than supporting basic operations. The maps availabe through the AAMD will be very valuable to understand who we're reaching and where we might want or need to place more focus.

Your primary project will be compiling an inventory of all of our educational programs and initiatives, pulling together the details necessary for the mapping project.

This project will involve meeting with representatives of the departments that provide education and outreach, conducting interviews with museum staff and external contacts, reviewing records and developing a database to organize the pertinent information. You will need to understand the needs of the AAMD mapping team, and you may need to interface directly with them.

This should be a very interesting project that will give you some interesting insight to the value and relevance of our museum to the community.

In addition, you will have an opportunity to assist our evaluators in conducting a Visitor Satisfaction survey and analyzing the data.

Depending on time and logistics, we will arrange for you to work on some smaller projects or assignments with various departments, to give you some insight into those aspects of the museum's operations; and you'll attend our monthly Managers' Meetings and other meetings that may be of value for an "inside" perspective of the museum's operations.
I'm pretty happy with this description.  My main professional interests center around programming, education, outreach, and visitor services... so this sounds like a good match.
Now it's back to packing.  See you in Detroit!