Museum Surprises in Houston

As a Dallasite, it is required that I dislike Houston. And after spending three days there recently for the Texas Association of Museums conference, I can’t say that I’ve totally changed my mind. However, there are some wonderful museums there, and much like my experience in Philadelphia, I was genuinely surprised by a few spots.

At museum conferences, you spend your evenings at museums, probably drinking and hopefully eating. (sometimes there aren’t quite enough appetizers to turn into dinner). Often, you just dash through exhibits, if you even take the time to stop catching up with old friends and see something. However, at this conference, at least once a night, I was absolutely delighted by at least one of the exhibits.

At The Health Museum, we decided at the last second to be good museum-goers and take the tour of the DeBakey Cell Lab. I had no idea what I was walking into, but it made my educator heart sing. Hands-on experiment activities for all ages. With all the official “scientist” stuff like lab coats and gloves and goggles. The science and technology on display was amazing. But what really captured my heart was the volunteer. You could instantly tell she loved the museum and the science and you. Someone asked her about her background and she replied “I was a psychiartist, but I always wanted to be a medical doctor. So as soon as I retired, I walked across the street and started volunteering.” The other thing that amazed me about the Health Museum was the diversity of its staff and volunteers. I’ve never seen a non-culturally specific museum with that level of diversity. And yes, Houston is a culturally diverse city, but museums don’t always reflect that. So, kudos.

The next night, the highlight was the Houston Museum of African American Culture. When we walked in, I noticed a banner about a Sandra Bland exhibit, but the date the exhibit closed was weeks before. Never fear! It had been so popular that it was held over through the end of April. It was an incredibly simple exhibit that talked about her life, her arrest, her death and her legacy. They divided a large gallery space into three rooms with black curtains, plus a large overview area. The first room contained a video reel of many of her social media posts. The second was video and audio of her arrest. Each of those rooms contained individual headsets. There was something so intimate about each person sitting with a headset, and yet it was still a collective experience. The final room was set up like her funeral, complete with programs from the service.

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In the large gathering area, there was a video with interviews about the “talk” African Americans have with their children about police interactions, as well as comments on all of the recent police shootings. The whole thing had me on the verge of tears.

But perhaps my favorite part was the exhibit label that asked (paraphrased) “Can museums be involved in social justice?” I think you know my answer.

On the final night, I must admit we skipped most of the museums, but we did go to the final stop–the massive Museum of Fine Arts Houston. We walked through their giant galleries, feeling completely overwhelmed. Our brains and our feet were tired. But we decided that we should at least take a glance at whatever was across the street. And that’s where we found our final surprise–an incredible exhibit of Indian art and culture: Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India.  The art and material culture were absolutely stunning–such rich colors. And I found myself desperately wanting to read (again, often rare in a jaded museum professional under the best of circumstances) but with no real energy or time to truly explore the exhibit. At the same time, the whole thing felt totally new and I realized how little I know about Indian culture. Though a fairly traditional art exhibit, it still felt very new and different.

Houston will always be Houston. But it’s got some great museums.

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The Houston Museum of Natural Science was delightful, but I wasn’t surprised that the dinosaurs delighted me. But I was VERY surprised that I had straight hair in Houston.
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Museum Surprises in Philadelphia

Sometimes, being a museum professional ruins museums. We develop our inner checklist, the things that we judge others on. It may have nothing to do with anything a “regular” visitor cares about, but it causes us to think differently and move differently through an exhibit. I’ve warned family and friends not to visit a museum with me. I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut about certain museums that disappointed me. But the fun comes in when I’m truly delighted and surprised by a museum experience. That’s when I gush.

Last month, I visited Philadelphia for the very first time. The official reason was a conference, but I stayed a few extra days so I could see what’s required of every history nerd. So yes, we visited Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell and the new Museum of the American Revolution. And I really enjoyed those visits (the George Washington tent experience at MOAR is worth all the fuss). But that’s not what I keep thinking about.

Instead, I keep thinking about the Ben Franklin Museum. My colleague and tour guide, Jenn, used to work within steps of this spot, but she had never been.

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The “Ghost Houses” on the foundation of Franklin’s house are also pretty nifty. And have held up surprisingly well as an exhibit for the last 40+ years. (erected for the Bicentennial.)

We learned later that they had taken content from the tricentennial of Franklin’s birth and re-purposed them. We didn’t care. Unlike anywhere else we visited in Philadelphia, there was this wit and sense of humor in the exhibits. Between the two of us, I think we actually watched every video and did every interactive.

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Might have watched this one twice. It was hysterical. And I just love this style of animation for history projects.

Do you realize how rare that is for two mid-career museum professionals? It takes a lot to delight us. It was stylized and engaging and used primary sources in an amazing way.

I loved the use of their mascot, a squirrel named Skuggs, dressed differently for each exhibit section.

If there had been Skuggs stuff in the gift shop, I would have bought one for every staff member. (they had squirrels, but no great outfits.) We noticed visitors of all ages equally engaged in the exhibit. They hit all the right notes and truly got the whole “Let’s appeal to the entire family” concept throughout the entire museum. Those of you who know me well know that one of my soapboxes is the museums that put their “kid-friendly” exhibit areas off in one corner, rather than integrating throughout the experience. Adults often need that level of engagement too!

Another unexpected delight was an exhibit at the Union League, a fabulous historic building just a few blocks from our hotel.

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Only took a picture of the outside of the building. But fabulous!

Jenn knew it was a great building, but it’s members only. Except for this lower floor exhibit area a few hours a week. So, we acted like we couldn’t read signs and at least made it into the main lobby. And then headed downstairs to the Heritage Center, where non-members are welcome, to check out “Risk and Reward: Entrepreneurship and the Making of Philadelphia.” It was a small exhibit, but truly spanned the entire breadth of Philadelphia history. It was diverse, went right up the present day, and borrowed from collections throughout the city. Again, we read most of it, talked about it, and did all the things a great exhibit should do. We even admired some of the casework! (As a curator, Jenn does this sort of thing all the time. It’s rarer for me!) It was also the first stop during my visit and such a great introduction to the city’s rich history.

And then there was the Betsy Ross House. Again, an example of us thinking “well, we don’t have a lot of time, but we’re close and I bet we can squeeze this in.” And it was a delight. They openly talked about the myth of Betsy and how it developed.

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Some of the many ways Betsy’s name has been used.

They integrated exhibits well into a historic house (something we’re struggling with right now at DHV). There was a wonderful re-enactor, which is so often done poorly. They reminded us of the risk she was taking by making the flag, something I had never really thought about.

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Of course she couldn’t sew the flag in the main house–she was rebelling. But I certainly had never thought about that detail before.

And they spoke about all of the other people that made the house and business work.

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Love these labels and these stories.

We learned so much! They shattered all kinds of myths, but did it in exactly the right way. Plus, they had one of the best gift shops, and I totally bought an unnecessary souvenir for one of my nieces.

So even though I’m often a grumpy museum goer, perhaps my delight at these sort of surprises makes up for it? Our expectations weren’t super high for either place. National Park sites or tiny history organizations that are buried under a giant umbrella organization aren’t generally know for great, innovative exhibits. And yet. . .

This is why I always make it a point to visit a few spots slightly off the beaten tourist path when I visit a new place. You just never know what sort of surprises you might encounter–and how you might be inspired as a museum professional. Or just as a regular person.

Variations on a Theme: African American History at 3 Museums

About 30 minutes into the tour, my parents started giving me the side eye. That look that says “Why on earth did you think this would be a good idea?” and “How much longer must we suffer?” I avoided their gaze. I wasn’t too thrilled either.

We were at the Whitney Plantation, just outside of New Orleans. It was the last day of our trip, and the Whitney had been on my list of “must-dos” I had read the articles about how the Whitney was putting the story of the enslaved front and center. I had read the articles about how the Whitney was becoming a leader in the history museum field as we struggle to share and interpret the history of slavery. As a director and a historian, I felt like I really needed to check this all out.

In a way, it was fitting that I visited the Whitney this year. In February, I had the distinct privilege of visiting the brand new National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC. In some ways, it wasn’t a great museum experience. After all, it was wall to wall people! I got hit twice in the ankles by a wheelchair. It was hard to see everything just because of the crowds. But I couldn’t be upset. After all, it was clear that the people I was surrounded by were reading, learning, connecting—and probably hadn’t spent a lot of time in museums. The narrative put the African American experience at the center. It wasn’t just about slavery and oppression, but identity and stretching boundaries. There was a huge range of artifacts, and the curators didn’t shy away from anything.

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A slave cabin in the center of a gallery. One of my DHV coworkers helped dissemble it before it was moved to DC.

For me, the most moving moment was as I was waiting in line to see Emmett Till’s casket. There’s a small room in front of the room containing the casket, where news footage of the funeral is played. Standing in that anteroom were two women, who I presumed to be mother and daughter. They were leaning on each other, watching the video, softly crying. It was a moment that wouldn’t have been possible without the museum.

In May, I flew into Memphis for a work trip and headed straight to the National Civil Rights Museum. I had first visited back in 1997 as part of a college orientation trip. That was long before the new building and the inclusion of the boarding house where the shots that killed Martin Luther King Jr were fired. I don’t have many firm memories of that visit, but I remember liking it.

I know they just went through a massive reinterpretation, but I’m not sure exactly what all was new. Again, they did a fabulous job of putting the African American experience front and center. They also had some powerful artifacts, including a bombed out bus that moved me to tears.

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Powerful artifacts, mixed with lots and lots of individual voices from those that were active in the Movement.

So, heading to the Whitney felt like a natural next stop on this year’s tour of African American history museums. And there were aspects of it that were very good. But I have difficulty recommending it.

Perhaps I should start with what I liked? The tour did start out well. The first stop was an African American church, built after Emancipation, and moved to the Whitney Plantation a few years ago. Inside, were a collection of statues of children, representing the hundreds of children born into slavery at the Whitney. There was a nice introductory video and a discussion of the WPA slave narratives. The docent discussed how those narratives captured the voices of slaves, but is almost exclusively memories of a childhood in slavery.

We proceeded next to a memorial, listing all of the known names of the people brought to the Whitney during the slave trade years. And this is where the tour began to fall apart. We spent over 20 minutes at one side of the monument. And then he said “now let’s go to the other side of the monument.” Another 20 minutes talking about all of the known names of people born into slavery on the plantation. Then 20 minutes at the next memorial. Ten at the next. And then we finally got to see another building.

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The entire tour was 2 hours—and about half of it was spent at the memorials. These memorials are important, but do we really need to spend that much time at them? Especially in the New Orleans heat? On the day we were there, we had intermittent rain. They provided umbrellas, but the docent also made no moves to hurry the tour along or make any adjustments due to the weather. In the heat, this would be almost unbearable. Definitely not something to inspire a good visitor experience that would allow minds to be opened for learning.

And then there was the tour guide himself. He was passionate. He certainly knew his history. But he was also incredibly repetitive. He did a good job of pointing out that slavery is as much an economic system as a racist system, but he said it over and over and over again. An hour into a tour, I think everyone more than understood.

But the thing that bothered me the most is that even as they gave names to the enslaved, they didn’t give them much else. There were no stories of life on the plantation. No stories of how those that were enslaved struggled to live their lives within such harsh boundaries—how they made families and traditions in spite of their enslavement. There was no mention of any personal agency.  All of the complexities surrounding slavery were obscured by an overwhelming agenda.

As we all know, tour guides can make or break a museum visit. I don’t know if a different tour guide would have been less repetitive. However, he was certainly working within parameters set by the institution. The memorials are important, but a quick explanation of them and then allowing people to return after the tour would be far more effective. No guided tour, especially outside, and especially with few spots to sit, should be much more than an hour. Attention spans waver. Feet get tired. With my mom’s knee issues, she can’t stand for too long in one place—and there was a lot of standing in one place. It was an incredibly disappointing and frustrating experience.

For those that do want to explore the complex relationships on a plantation between enslaved and slaveowner, I would highly recommend the Laura Plantation. It was our first tourist stop when we arrived in New Orleans, chosen because it had been managed by four generations of women. They did an amazing job of describing slave life and pointing out all the complexities. They gave us time to pause and reflect, but also kept us moving. Our tour guide had passion, but never let that passion overtake the pace of the tour. All three of us (parents and myself) loved the tour, felt like we learned something, and were challenged by some of that information.

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Laura Plantation
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One of the several extant slave cabins at the Laura Plantation. As was true at many plantations in southern Louisiana, these cabins were lived in through the 1970s by workers. Most of whom were descendants of those that were enslaved on the same land.

African American history is a complex subject that has long been ignored by major museums. There is some stellar interpretation out there, but we have to continue to question it just like we do any other interpretation. In this age where nuance and complexity are getting bulldozed by loud voices shouting, I commend those organizations that are holding fast to telling the complete, messy history of our past.