Shaker Historical Society: A Reflection

August 22, 2017, was my first day as a development intern at Shaker Historical Society (SHS). With my GPS navigator barking demands to “turn, turn, TURN!” I still missed the driveway to the museum. After finding the next turnaround, I finally made it to SHS and drove my car up its driveway.  I opened the car door and reached for my holy-guacamole lunch sack and my black North Face book bag, the latter of which has accompanied me on all my adventures since high school. I slammed the door shut and took half of a step toward the building when I heard a cheerful call of welcome. When I lifted my head, I noticed the sound came from the SHS Executive Director. She energetically coaxed me into the museum with constant waves of encouragement. After quickly ushering me in from the Cleveland August heat, the real work began.

In the Executive Director’s office that day I learned that the role of development in a museum encompasses far more than writing proposals, grants, and fundraising. Development in a small non-profit organization includes, but is not limited to, visitor relations and retention, grants, finance, and daily operations. Needless to say, the possibilities for my internship project were endless. The Executive Director asked me to critically think about what I wanted to get out of this internship. I pondered the following questions before answering: What aspect of professional museum work had I only been briefly exposed to in my previous experiences? What part of museum operations blends communication and administration? What can I learn best through practice opposed to endless hours of theory? “Visitor relations,” I heard myself say. Within the first hours of crossing the threshold of SHS’s main entrance, I was set on a path that would lead to two internship projects, countless benefits, surprising realizations, and some critical observations.

The first project envisioned was a critical site evaluation of the museum and grounds. This type of project enabled me to learn more about how the museum operates and how visitors interact with the space. The project aimed to identify the positive and negatives of the visitor experience. In addition, I hoped to propose viable solutions to the identified problems. The solutions needed to require the least amount of resources and time because of the scarcity of both. I headed outside with my camera phone and scrap paper.

I decided to walk through the typical visitor’s approach to the museum and grounds. For this project to produce the most beneficial results, the observations needed to be fresh and untainted. After the comprehensive site evaluation was completed, I thought about the observations I had made during this exercise. Two of the most noticeable observations made of the museum’s interior became the foundation for the next project. I noticed the lack of technological elements in the exhibits and the room for improvement in the communication of the exhibit room narratives.

My answer was a virtual exhibit, which was envisioned as a way for visitors of all ages to engage with the collection items on display through a technological element. In each of the museum’s four permanent exhibit rooms, I chose four collection objects. The items were chosen for either their uniqueness, their importance to the telling of the exhibit’s core narrative, or a combination of the two. The four featured items also were chosen because of their placement in the various rooms. For example, in the Shaker Heights Exhibit Room the visitor is first directed toward a sextant that is located in the left-front corner of the room. Next the visitor is guided to a Shaker Heights “for sale” sign, followed by a Terminal Tower model, and finally a Shaker Heights stop sign located in the room’s right-back corner. By following the path of featured objects, the visitor has walked the whole room. The hope is that the visitor will be more likely to absorb the intervening information as they move from each featured item. For each subsequent room, the pattern was duplicated.

Then the question became how to encourage visitors to follow this path. This is where the virtual component of the project was incorporated. A QR code was placed outside each room. When scanned, a code directs the visitor to a shakerhistory.org virtual exhibit webpage, for each respective room. For visitors without smart devices, half-sheets with the same information were printed so that all visitors can join in on the experience. Each featured collections object was assigned a letter. A corresponding letter was placed in front of the actual collections object for each room. Next to each letter, on the webpage and sheet, there is an image, accession number, donor name, and interpretative description of the item. Through this small incorporation of technology, the Shaker Historical Society can engage with visitors on a new level.

In addition to the completion of the two projects, I assisted in the museum’s daily operations. I answered the phone, learned how to navigate eTapestry (a free data management program), interacted with visitors, and helped customers in the Spirit Tree Gift Shop. Every step of the way, the Executive Director made sure that I understood the importance of these seemingly miniscule tasks. One of the strengths of interning at SHS, therefore, was learning how to professionally multitask. In running such a small operation, all staff members need to contribute to the daily museum operations. The main projects are always the main focus, but without ensuring that the daily operations are managed the whole organization crumbles.

As my internship at SHS ends and I pack up and move on with my North Face backpack and holy-guacamole lunch sack, I cannot help but find symbolic meaning in my first day at SHS. Although my GPS told me where to turn, I still missed the organization’s driveway. Similarly, the Shaker Historical Society, like many small museums, is easy for its immediate community to forget about. The museum desperately needs to become more relevant and noticeable in the community in order to stay viable. In today’s society, just being there will no longer cut it even for well-established museums. But, there is hope. When I slammed my car door and heard the Executive Director’s cheerful welcome coming from the door, I realized what it takes to make small museums relevant. It takes engaging and personable museum professionals. The Executive Director made me excited to start my first day. She was quick, to the point, and effective. In a time when a consumer has millions of choices, why should they plan a visit to a small museum? I could rattle off a thousand, but I have discovered that the key is getting others to feel the same way. My internship experience at SHS exposed me to the foundations of museum professionalism.