Thinking Outside of the Museum Box

by Kiran Riar

Museums, let’s face it, can be boring places. Every single one of you reading this has been to some museum in your life where you were reading the information in a dull exhibit case and just lost interest. It happens. While I’m not a museum historian by any means, I would bet that museums have always struggled with this issue, but now the fact is that museums have a lot to compete with – TV, the internet, video games. You can Google just about any information you would like to know, and you didn’t have to drive out to Chucalissa to read this article. Why visit?

This terrifying question is something educational institutions across the world struggle with on a daily basis. Not just museums; but schools, zoos, aquariums, nature centers, galleries, theaters, concert halls, and planetariums. It’s scary, but it pushes all the professionals who work at these institutions to work a little harder and think outside the box.

For those of you who haven’t thought about this problem before, I ask you to please consider the Ben Stiller family-friendly classic, Night at the Museum. If you haven’t seen it, just play along and add it to your Netflix queue immediately. When we first meet the main character, Larry, he is interviewing for a night guard position at the Museum of National History. You see, the museum is letting go of their three current night guards because of budgetary cutbacks. One of the old employees, played by Dick Van Dyke, tells it like it is:

“The museum is losing money, hand over fist. I guess kids today don’t care about wax figures or stuffed animals. So they’re downsizing…which is code for firing.”

Cue the collective wince from every museum professional in America. Because Larry’s only previous experience with museums has been as a visitor, he expects his job to be somewhat lackluster. This could be a greater metaphor for the perception of all museum work. He has to close at night and open in the morning; how hard is that? Of course, movie magic steps in, the exhibits come to life at night, and Larry quickly realizes that he has to wrangle all the museum’s wild inhabitants so it can remain open. While I’m not saying that our jobs are quite that exciting all the time, a lot more goes into keeping a museum running than meets the eye.

Inevitably, the exhibits get out, the media gets wind of the museum’s “publicity stunt”, and the museum’s visitor numbers go up. While this boost in admission is enough to hold the museum for a little while, we find out in the next movie that the exhibits are being replaced with newer technology. Long story short, the old exhibits are returned and the museum is opened at night, providing a fun, interactive learning experience for visitors.

Moral? Publicity in the short-term is great, but create programming that is different and sustainable. People want to be informed and entertained in any way they can. It doesn’t matter if the internet is your competition. You can watch YouTube videos all day about throwing an atlatl, but it doesn’t give you the same thrill and satisfaction as launching one into our mounds.

Think outside the box. The Night at the Museum movies spurred several successful “night at the museum” events in locations across the country. If slumber parties in the exhibit hall aren’t your thing, think about what other strengths your museum can capitalize on. You could be surprised by the amount of attention you garner. The C.H. Nash Museum recently hosted our first ever Take Your Dog to Work Day, and the next day we were in the L.A. Times blog. The event started out as a way to boost employee morale and resulted in some of the most positive feedback we’ve ever gotten via social media. Since our visitors seem to be puppy lovers too, an open-to-the-public, dog-friendly event is now in the works.

If you have any suggestions for other “out of the box” events, please let us know! After all, you are the ones we aim to please. You should be hearing about the spin-off of Take Your Dog to Work Day in the near future, but in the meantime, you can stay updated on special events at Chucalissa by visiting our Facebook page.

Kiran Riar works in visitor services at the C.H. Nash Museum.

About C.H. Nash Museum

The mission of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, a division of the University of Memphis, is to protect and interpret the Chucalissa archaeological site’s cultural and natural environments, and to provide the University Community and the Public with exceptional educational, participatory, and research opportunities on the landscape’s past and present Native American and traditional cultures.
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