Recent News

News about POW!

On the move in 2020!

Paul will be presenting and sponsoring at the Museum Association of New York's Albany NY Conference in March, presenting and sponsoring at the Association of Children's Museums St. Louis MO Conference in May and then off to present at ECSITE Conference in Slovenia in June.


Paul Orselli receives prestigious Fulbright Specialist award!

Paul is delighted to announce that his Fulbright Specialist award will bring him back to Bulgaria to work with the fine folks at Muzeiko in September 2019.


A Busy Conference Season!

POW! was a proud sponsor of the 2019 InterActivity Conference in Denver, as well as being a speaker at the New York City Museum Educator's Roundtable (NYCMER) Conference.

Coming up, POW! is also a proud sponsor of Museums & Race events at the American Alliance of Museums Conference in New Orleans and a presenter at the The European Network of Science Centres and Museums (ECSITE) Conference in Copenhagen.


Exhibit Workshops in China

At the beginning of November 2017, Paul Orselli will be presenting a series of exhibition design and development workshops for ICOM China at The Palace Museum in Beijing.


"In Harms Way" Exhibition

POW! created interactive exhibit components for the "In Harm's Way" exhibition opening in October 2017 at The Long Island Museum in Stony Brook, NY.


ASTC Conference

Paul will be speaking at the Annual Conference of the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC) in San Jose, California from October 21-24, 2017.
Follow this link for more information about the Conference Program.


The Children’s Museum in West Hartford

A new exhibit at the Children’s Museum in West Hartford, which caters to preschool and elementary school-aged children, has created an interactive exhibit ‘Dinosaurs in Your Backyard: A Portal to Past Worlds,’ premiered on Feb. 18, 2017. The dinosaur exhibit that opened to the public isn’t filled with reconstructed dinosaur skeletons to be seen and not touched.“The scenes are reflective, to the best of our knowledge, of what Connecticut, even West Hartford, might have been like millions of years ago,” said Paul Orselli, who designed the exhibit for The Children’s Museum.


Busy 2016 Conference Season!

Paul Orselli, principal of POW! is delighted to be an invited speaker at the 2016 conferences of the Association of Children's Museums and the Association of Science-Technology Centers.  Paul will also be a discussant for the symposium celebrating  the 25th anniversary of the MFA program in Museum Exhibition Planning + Design at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.


DoSeum opens in San Antonio

One of the largest new Children’s Museum projects in the United States, DoSeum, has opened to great acclaim in San Antonio, Texas. POW! was happy to provide consulting, training, and staff development expertise to the project.


Muzeiko museum project opens in Sofia Bulgaria!

After many enjoyable years of being part of the primary project team for Muzeiko, POW! is delighted to announce that Bulgaria’s first Children’s Museum opened to the public on October 1st, 2015.  Here is a Google Maps walkthrough of the entire Muzeiko building and exhibits:


More Museum News and Views

Check out more of what’s going on in the museum biz, as well as exhibit tips and tricks of the trade on the ExhibiTricks blog:

ExhibiTricks blog

  • Revisiting Hayao Miyazaki's Museum Manifesto

    I am traveling through Belgium with my family this week, so here is a post that makes me think of a place I have yet to travel to -- the Ghibli Museum in Japan!  But really this "encore" post is a chance to revisit Hayao Miyazaki and his "Museum Manifesto."  Enjoy!

    Hayao Miyazaki is a film artist who has created some amazing animated films for Studio Ghibli in Japan.  (Some of my favorites include "Spirited Away" and "My Neighbor Totoro".) He also has created one of my all-time favorite museum manifestos, which I think is worth revisiting from time to time.

    To capture some of the spirit and history of the films and the film studio, there is a Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Japan.  I've haven't had the pleasure of visiting the Ghibli Museum in person (yet!) but as I was perusing the Ghibli Museum website, I noticed a link to "A Few Words from Executive Director Hayao Miyazaki" on the home page.

    The Link leads to a mini-manifesto from Director Miyazaki entitled, "This is the Kind of Museum I Want to Make!"

    I think it is wonderful (and gutsy!) for the director of any museum to share the guiding principles behind the creation of their museum in such an up-front way, but I also thought some of the Director Miyazaki's thoughts were worth sharing here:

    This is the Kind of Museum I Want to Make!
    A museum that is interesting and which relaxes the soul
    A museum where much can be discovered
    A museum based on a clear and consistent philosophy
    A museum where those seeking enjoyment can enjoy, those seeking to ponder can ponder, and those seeking to feel can feel
    A museum that makes you feel more enriched when you leave than when you entered!

    To make such a museum, the building must be...
    Put together as if it were a film
    Not arrogant, magnificent, flamboyant, or suffocating
    Quality space where people can feel at home, especially when it's not crowded
    A building that has a warm feel and touch
    A building where the breeze and sunlight can freely flow through

    The museum must be run in such a way so that...
    Small children are treated as if they were grown-ups
    The handicapped are accommodated as much as possible
    The staff can be confident and proud of their work
    Visitors are not controlled with predetermined courses and fixed directions
    It is suffused with ideas and new challenges so that the exhibits do not get dusty or old, and that investments are made to realize that goal

    The museum shop will be...
    Well-prepared and well-presented for the sake of the visitors and running the museum
    Not a bargain shop that attaches importance only to the amount of sales
    A shop that continues to strive to be a better shop
    Where original items made only for the museum are found

    This is what I expect the museum to be, and therefore I will find a way to do it

    This is the kind of museum I don't want to make!
    A pretentious museum
    An arrogant museum
    A museum that treats its contents as if they were more important than people
    A museum that displays uninteresting works as if they were significant

    What do you think of Hayao Miyazaki's ideas about museums? (Let us know in the "Comments" section below.)

    Personally, his words make me want to visit the Ghibli Museum even more now!

    And Director Miyazaki's mini-manifesto also begs a question: What sort of message to visitors does your Executive Director post on your Museum's website?

    Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

    Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

    If you enjoy the blog, you can help keep it free to read and free from ads by supporting ExhibiTricks through our PayPal "Tip Jar"
  • Museum Objects, Health and Healing: An Interview with Brenda Cowan

    Brenda Cowan is an Associate Professor with the Exhibition & Experience Design program at SUNY/Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.

    Brenda is also the author (along with Ross Laird and Jason McKeown) of a new book entitled Museum Objects, Health and Healing.  Brenda was kind enough to share some thoughts about the book and her museum work in the interview below:

    What’s your educational background?
    Well formally, it includes a BFA in Fine Arts and an MSed from the Leadership program at Bank Street College of Education. There were additional forays of coursework in cultural anthropology at Hunter College and creative writing at Columbia. But at risk of getting all zen on you, my educational background was equally comprised of years as an equestrian (including broken bones), a significant basketball phase (including broken bones), and a new focus on Northern Wu Tai Qi (no broken bones...hopefully).

    Those experiences are so significant because I study the things that I do as much as I practice them. I love getting my head around strategies in basketball, or the purpose of riding on the diagonal, or the interconnection between a hand gesture, liver health, and pulling an imaginary assailant to the ground. (Those nice old ladies doing Tai Qi in the park are slow but dangerous. You’ve been warned.) Thinking about education as holistic in this way is very important to me. Formal studies, creative work, research projects, physical activities; everything is done with intention is educational to me.

    What got you started in Museums?
    I was about six or so and had never been to a museum. No idea what they were. One day while my brother was away somewhere I decided to perform an unauthorized archeological dig in his bedroom. Picture a landfill and you’ll have the right idea. In my excavations, I unearthed a small bronze figure. I suppose it was a dinosaur of some sort, but at the moment I knew better. It was the Loch Ness Monster. The Loch Ness Monster! Its likeness in my very hand! I cannot emphasize enough the thrill I felt at that moment. My heart was racing! I had found proof that the Loch Ness Monster was REAL! (Just go with it, I was six, ok?) I remember standing there trembling, in the middle of my brother’s room, holding this object that solved a riddle that had utterly crippled the entire scientific community for decades. And what’s the first thing I did? I grabbed a bar stool from the basement and placed it in the middle of the living room. I covered it with a sheet and gently placed the figurine on top. I pulled over the love seat and on its arm I placed my beloved book of authentic, real-life photographs of the Loch Ness Monster. I gently propped it open to the show-stopping centerfold image of his head emerging from the murky waters. I could not believe this was really happening. I then got a piece of paper and proceeded to write a label, describing what the Loch Ness Monster is and why he’s so important. I drew a picture of my own, just in case people needed some extra help in understanding how the figurine related to the photograph.

    Breathlessly, I raced through the house hollering for my family to come and see my display. It was a hard opening. And go figure, once the others realized that the house wasn’t on fire, there was little interest in this groundbreaking moment in history. Furthermore, my brother had returned and I was forced to immediately deaccession my prized artifact and deinstall what was probably the best exhibit I’ve ever made.

    That’s what got me started in museums. That’s what keeps me going.

    What got you interested originally in the connections between objects, exhibitions, and wellness?
    Have you ever been hit by lightning? Me neither. But let’s run with the analogy. The connection struck me out of the blue about seven years ago when I was deeply immersed in some difficult family events. I found myself observing healing therapies at a wilderness facility in the Blue Ridge Mountains, learning how therapists use things like rocks and sticks and small plastic beads to help people heal through trauma. It was incredible, and during my time there, I knew I was watching something related to exhibitions, but I didn’t know what. I actually felt a spark, but it wasn’t the right time to figure it out.

    Stick and leaf labyrinth at Trails Carolina     photo credit: Brenda Cowan

    In 2015 I went back, this time as a museum professional. I conducted a research study with staff, clinicians, field therapists, and patients, and heard all of the same characterizations of objects that museum professionals and phenomenologists use when examining object meanings: objects as repositories of memory; witness bearers; companions in life, and so on. Therapists had patients associate their pain and challenges with selected objects. The imbued object became deeply meaningful and its characteristics were put into action: the object became a repository of that painful memory or event; or it became a silent partner in a difficult journey; or perhaps it became a reminder of strength, etc. The object became potent. And in the hands of a person in trauma, the object could then be engaged with as part of a healing process: tossed off a cliff to unburden grief, given as a gift to connect with others, or laced onto a hiking boot as a marker of achievement, and so on.

    The interconnectivity of these actions was catalytic and resulted in healing impacts. And in observing these therapies it struck me that people often do these sorts of things on their own. Without a therapist directing us to. Without even thinking about health and healing. And we seem to have some encounters like these in exhibitions. This is why museum scholars have been finding evidence of numinous experience and meaning-making with objects in exhibitions for almost a century now.

    The initial field study was life-changing for me, and I developed a true joy for thinking about objects that I hadn’t had before. I formalized the theory of Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics, and then went on to engage therapists Ross Laird and Jason McKeown, and research associate Melisa Delibegovic, in three years of museum-based case studies to solidify the scholarship. For me, objects in exhibitions were suddenly potent. Every one. If not for me then perhaps for someone else. And what an energizing feeling to think that these things around us are alive in this way.

    In a lot of ways, the potency of my little Loch Ness Monster experience reemerged. I hadn’t thought of that until now. Thanks, Paul.

    Which museums or organizations are in the vanguard of this approach?
    Thinking about how to respond to this question has held me up for days. So much is happening with museums, mental health, and wellbeing worldwide. It’s overwhelming. Pull on the thread and you find that this dialogue has been going on for decades, and in remarkable ways among remarkable people.

    Big picture, there are many museums working with objects and exhibitions with healthful and healing intentions. And if my research holds true, there are many more that are fostering wellbeing and healing and aren’t necessarily thinking about it. Based on my research, there are notable healthful and healing impacts in exhibitions occurring wherever people are given access to seeing or even actively engaging with objects in focused ways. Perhaps not surprisingly, health and healing outcomes are especially evident in highly participatory museums and exhibitions where constituencies are a part of the life of the institution. Where there are audiences, museum staff, volunteers and communities participating in personal object donation or sharing, curation, design, exhibition maintenance, interpretation, and program engagement, there will be notable evidence of healthful and healing object encounters.

    Side story: using the Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics framework as an instrument, I just completed an exhibition evaluation with the National Museums of World Culture in Sweden. They co-created a small exhibition – Stories From Syria – with Sweden’s Syrian refugee and immigrant population, displaying participants’ personal objects and stories. The healing and healthful impacts for the Syrians, Museum staff and visitors were abundant and incredibly moving. There wasn’t an explicit intention to foster health and healing via the exhibition, although the goals of the exhibition aligned with the principals of participatory practice (shout out to Nina Simon). Now the institution is considering how to approach healthful outcomes in future exhibition development. So, museums that are explicitly identifying health, wellbeing, and healing are in the vanguard, so to speak, although museums and exhibitions like Stories From Syria, that are participatory in practice and mission are as well.

    Nour and Brenda in Sweden      photo credit: Lusian Alasaaf

    There are many people, organizations, alliances, and studies that are leaders in this dialogue, and here are some that have been influential to my own work.

    Please do learn about and visit The National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York, The War Childhood Museum in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and The Derby Museum and Art Gallery in Derby, England.

    Health and wellbeing are woven into their missions and operations, and through their practices, they provide excellent examples of how to approach these outcomes. Another important call out here is the Happy Museum Project. This UK-based museum and cultural heritage organization is a tremendous resource for everyone interested in this topic.  Mark O’Neill and Helen Chatterjee, also in the UK, have been leading research and influencing policy in this arena for well over a decade, and I’ve included a few items below where you can learn about their work. Professor Chatterjee initiated the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance, which is an excellent online resource in particular.

    The American Alliance of Museums and the Center for the Future of Museums likewise have been keeping abreast of the connection between museums and mental health. The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) published a 2018 report entitled Museums on Call: How Museums are Addressing Health Issues, which provides important resources.

    Here are some other important articles and books to know about as well:

    American Alliance of Museums. 2018. “Museums on Call: How Museums are Addressing Health Issues.”

    Chatterjee, Helen. 2013.  Museums, Health and Well-BeingLondon: Routledge.

    O’Neill, Mark. 2010. “Cultural attendance and public mental health — from research to practice.” Journal of Public Mental Health 9 (4)

    War Childhood Museum. 2018. “The idea, mission and vision of the War Childhood Museum.”

    Taksava, Tatjana. 2018. “Building a Culture of Peace and Collective Memory in Post‐conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina: Sarajevo’s Museum of War Childhood.” Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism May 2018

    National September 11 Memorial & Museum. 2019. “President’s Message.”

    Pye, E., ed. 2007. The Power of Touch: Handling Objects in Museum and Heritage Contexts. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, Inc.

    Silverman, Lois H. 1998. The Therapeutic Potential of Museums: A Guide to Social Service/Museum Collaboration. Washington D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services.

    Can you talk a little about your new book?
    It’s a monograph and therefore targets an academic readership, however, it’s written in a very narrative style. This was so important to me. All of this work is about people, objects, and ultimately, humanity. The book captures that. It provides the depth and breadth of scholarship grounding the theory of Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics and breaks down the mechanics of the theory itself.

    There are chapters for each of the four case studies that comprised the empirical research phase of the work, including the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, the War Childhood Museum, the Derby Museum and Art Gallery, and the Museum at FIT. I share the methodology for the studies, why those institutions were selected, the data that resulted, and evidence of the theory in exhibition settings. Three chapters are written as first-person narratives and are quite personal. In one, I describe the personal and then the professional journey of how I created the theory and its inspirations.

    In another, my coauthor Jason McKeown writes about the practice and pedagogy of wilderness therapy and describes his work as clinical director at Trails Carolina, a wilderness therapy facility in North Carolina. My other coauthor Ross Laird wrote a chapter describing how he uses objects in deeply meaningful and innovative ways as part of his therapy practice in British Columbia. In later chapters, Ross and Jason provide thoughtful information for museums about working with therapists. They provide practical recommendations for museums from a therapist's point of view.

    All throughout the book are quotes, anecdotes, and the voices of the people we interviewed and their relationships with objects. These personal and elegant elements are so important because they simply show how the theory works. It’s the 83 people who lovingly, and in some cases courageously, shared the depth of their object experiences that carry the book, and makes for some very beautiful and rich reading. If you want a sneak peek you can read a portion of the book here:

    Have museums responded positively to your research?
    So far, very much so. It’s actually a complex question – “positive” takes different forms here – so I’ll give you some context and detail. Regarding the museums that I directly worked with on my research, I attribute the positive outcomes with a thoughtful process and patience on everyone’s behalf. Following my first study with Trails Carolina, I knew I needed to conduct empirical research in museum settings and approached several institutions in a straightforward and in some cases, bold way. For each of the museums, it took about a year of conversations and planning and relationship building before the studies were actually conducted. Things progressed slowly and carefully, and each study, from the first point of contact to final reporting, took about two years. Over the course of three years and four museums in the empirical phase, there was a lot of overlapping work.

    I found that I didn’t need to convince any of the institutions per se, but it did take a while to clarify what I was looking to achieve and how the results could be beneficial for the institution, its constituency, and the museum and therapeutic communities. And it was important for the museums to know that this was personal. To me. It probably wouldn’t have been a recommended approach – to share with potential partners how intimate the question of objects and human health is to me personally – but I did. The responses to my personal quest have been positive and I’m grateful to everyone I’ve worked with for that.

    I asked colleagues at the 911 Memorial Museum if I could work with them and I can’t tell you how generous they were. They coordinated object donor participants for interviews and demonstrated tremendous trust in the care and quality of the methodology. Ross and Jason were significant participants in conducting the interviews so that interview subjects would feel safe, and so the process could be heuristic. Among the object donors, who are relatives of victims, first responders, and others directly impacted, the museum is viewed as an ally and partner in their healing process. It was extremely positive for everyone involved in the study, and the results illustrate the powerful impacts the museum is having on thousands of people who need that institution in order to heal.

    The same experience can be said for the study at The War Childhood Museum in Sarajevo, which I conducted with Melisa Delibegovic. Melisa is a war survivor, exhibition designer, and research colleague who had direct links with the museum. She was instrumental in providing a personal connection with the museum and with supporting that study. It was powerful, and I am completely smitten with this institution. The results of that study have been likewise very positive. Ross and Jason joined me again for the studies at The Derby Museum and Art Gallery, and The Museum at FIT, which followed the exact same protocol with very positive outcomes. I am continuing close relationships with those institutions as well, and there are possibilities for continued work with them in the future.

    Child's blue hat from War Childhood Museum     photo credit: Brenda Cowan

    When I approached the National Museums of World Culture in 2019 about conducting the evaluation of Stories From Syria, they were very positive and excited. We performed the work on a Fulbright grant, and I returned to Stockholm and Gothenburg this past November to share the study results and discuss future work with them as well. The outcomes of the study transcended expectations in certain ways, and there is a hunger to do more.

    So far, all of the work has produced positive results and interest from museums. In theory, that should be the case. A museum can learn how they are helping people in identifiable and measurable ways. With all of these initial studies, I feel like we are only just scratching the surface of seeing what is playing out in museums. I want to have a museum object, health and healing nuclear microscope. Let's make one. Maybe Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics is a nuclear microscope. I hope so.

    What advice would you have for museum professionals, especially those from smaller museums, in making sure their exhibitions and programs manifest in ways that promote wellness?
    Oh boy, this question is a giant. I hope it’s not obnoxious to point to the book for information on this one. The case studies show how exhibitions and museums can promote health and healing through participatory practices and even in passive exhibition environments. The chapters on how museums can – and should – work with the mental health community provide thoughtful guidelines and advisement for any institution approaching these aims. Seeking explicitly to foster health and healing through exhibitions and programming involves constructing appropriate teams of professionals, and establishing solid connections and modes of communications among staff, volunteers, stakeholders, as well as the broader museum constituencies. It needs to be a part of the mission and/or strategic plan of the institution. Don’t enter into this meekly or in an unclear fashion. Seemingly simple exhibitions, projects and programs can and are having very powerful impacts on people’s mental health.

    The tiniest of museums can achieve very healthful exhibition experiences, and behind the scenes, there should be an intricate and well-thought-out network of museum stakeholders working with experts in mental health. This doesn’t have to be cumbersome despite how I’m presenting it, but I want to advise approaching processes, program execution, and exhibition planning with care. You will find a lot of information on this in the resources I provided above as well. And another side note, folks should be mindful that you can’t ensure or “guarantee” healthful experiences. Just like you can’t ensure or guarantee meaning-making experiences. A great exhibition opens pathways and doors to these kinds of experiences. Creates contexts, moments and spaces for them. It can nurture and promote wellness.

    Blue Pinny from FIT study      photo credit: Brenda Cowan

    Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

    Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

    If you enjoy the blog, you can help keep it free to read and free from ads by supporting ExhibiTricks through our PayPal "Tip Jar"
  • Museum/Exhibit/Design Inspiration: MICROBODYSSEY

    Tatwood Puppets, a duo that combines puppetry, magic, and theatre, has created what looks to be a super-cool show about microbes called MICROBODYSSEY.

    Founders Matt Wood and Kerrin Tatman joined forces with artist and puppet maker Judith Hope to create a cross between a cabaret show and science fiction movie to give people a better sense of the microbial life all around us.

    Judging from the pictures shown here (and the video at the bottom this post) there is great power in combining "old school" storytelling techniques like puppetry and magic with "new school" immersive video and science fiction tropes.

    How can we find the space for mashups of old school and new school techniques in our own creative work?

    Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

    Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

    If you enjoy the blog, you can help keep it free to read and free from ads by supporting ExhibiTricks through our PayPal "Tip Jar"
  • Impromptu Communication Tips and Tricks for Museum Workers

    Jen Oleniczak Brown is the Founder of The Engaging Educator (EE), a women-owned and operated company dedicated to helping people find their unapologetic, authentic and best voice, communication style, and self through improv-based education. Jen lives in Winston Salem, NC with her husband, their two dogs Drumstick and Pickle, and over four-dozen houseplants. (Jen's photo credit: The Confetti Project.)

    Jen’s latest book, Think on Your Feet: Tips and Tricks to Improve Your Impromptu Communication Skills on the Job (McGraw Hill Education, November 2019) is one of Inc Magazines “20 Books That Will Kick Off 2020 on the Right Foot” and has been called “a helpful maven’s guide ideal for anyone who views a podium with fear and trembling” by Publishers Weekly.

    Jen was kind enough to share some impromptu communication tips and tricks below that I'm sure will of be of interest to ExhibiTricks readers.

    Conversations With Friends 24/7

    Flying by the seat of your pants.
    Going with the flow.
    Rolling with it.

    You’re either cringing or getting excited reading those phrases.

    Now, take those phrases into your museum workday.

    Same feelings? Different?

    I’ve been there – after working in museums as an educator for many years I realized that the whole “flex in the moment” thing isn’t the easiest for a lot of people. It’s not to say we aren’t good at it – because we are! – it’s the stigma of impromptu moments and impromptu conversations that causes this disconnect and often the discomfort.

    Surprise! You’re probably already pretty good at impromptu speaking, flying by the seat of your pants, going with the flow and rolling with it – and if you’re laughing at me, think of the last friendly conversation you had.

    Did you plan it?
    Did you script it?
    Did you overthink it?

    NO! We simply listen and respond when we’re having these friendly conversations. For some reason, our brains short circuit when it’s work-related and suddenly we feel like we’re not “as good” as impromptu moments. If you just tap into that listen and respond like you’re talking with a friend mindset, you’re going to notice drastic improvement with staff, visitors and more.

    While you’re wrapping your head around that mind shift, here are three areas to start tapping into directly that will build those skills in the moment and beyond:

    Active Listening

    I am constantly bringing everything back to listening. Imagine building a house, and you don’t check the foundation before you start building, you just start putting up the second floor on wiggly beams with no support.

    That’s how I see communication without attention to the basics.

    We are terrible listeners sometimes. I mean, can you blame us? We have a million things going on, we’re managing people and projects and the public and the next thing – on top of that all the information! We have an agenda and we need to make it happen…and when that takes over, listening in the moment can be one of the first things to go to the side.

    And yet, listening is crucial and key, and usually one of the things you can improve on first and immediately reap the benefits. Take a moment to assess your listening skills: they are non-negotiable in impromptu communication moments. If a visitor or a coworker says something and you miss information, or were thinking about the what next NEXT, they might tell you – or they’ll write you off as a distracted listener.

    If you know you tend to drift or focus a few steps ahead – or answer the question you think is being asked versus the question that is asked (a common offender in museum practice!) try this: wait until the person finishes their sentence, and take the last word of their sentence – let it inspire the first word of your sentence.

    This is a riff off of a training exercise we do called Last Word – we have pairs take the last word of the previous sentence and have them use it as the first word of the response. The idea is to be comfortable in silence and to pay attention to the entire thought instead of forming an answer or before the other person is even done talking. Since that exact exercise makes you sound like Yoda in real life, the scaffold is the inspiration.

    Show it, don’t just tell it

    Because active listening is so darn important, I have to tap it twice. As adults, we’re often super polite. Smiling, nodding, mmmhmmming – all these lovely non-verbals that show that we are COMPLETELY LISTENING – not thinking about our inbox, our dinner, our plans later…right?

    Yeah, I thought so.

    Kids are the best. Kids will tell you when they aren’t listening to you because they will talk over you, fidget, say you are boring – all these things.

    Be more like a kid.

    Show that you’re listening, don’t just tell us with the smile and nod. Asking questions – true curiosity questions to get more information or to get deeper into the topic, not questions to insert your opinion or swap focus. “Tell me more about x” or “That’s awesome, can you explain y more?” are great open-ended questions that aren’t aggressive or attacking, and they center the speaker. Also, pro tip: when someone shows they are listening to the speaker – and truly listening, so asking these questions and getting the speaker to keep talking – that speaker has some seriously good vibes going. Dopamine is firing in the speaker’s brain and that good feeling will pass to you as the listener – and who doesn’t want to be associated with a good feeling?

    Embrace Silence

    It takes time to respond thoughtfully. Silences are confident.

    Read that again, sink it in your brain, and start taking more silences.

    We have a weird association with silences – be it the “getting caught” because you’re not paying attention or the “deer in headlights” of not knowing what to say next, silences are usually associated with anxiety. Sure, a silence that is forced on you is generally nerve-wracking. On the flip side – a silence you take to be thoughtful, to respond with consideration instead of reacting, is confident because you’re taking it by choice. When we put intention behind our actions, confidence comes through. Remember to give yourself some grace and space to learn, grow and improve. And don’t build the house without the foundation!

    Thanks again to Jen for those helpful communication tips!  If you’d like to learn more about Jen and her work, hop over to

    AND NOW A FREE BOOK GIVEAWAY!  Here's your chance to win one of two free copies of Jen's new book, Think on Your Feet: Tips and Tricks to Improve Your Impromptu Communication Skills on the Job.  Either click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog OR send me an email with "I want to win a copy of Jen's book!" in the subject line before January 30, 2020.  We will randomly select one new ExhibiTricks subscriber and one emailer to each receive a book as their prize.  Good luck!

  • Relatability and Relinquishing Power: The Global Guides Program at the Penn Museum

    Ellen Owens and Kevin Schott from the Penn Museum were kind enough to share this guest post with ExhibiTricks readers about the "Global Guides" program at their institution.

    Ellen Owens is the Merle-Smith Director of Learning and Public Engagement at the Penn Museum.  Kevin Schott, as the Associate Director of Interpretive Programs, works closely with the Penn Museum’s volunteer docents and Global Guides. (Learn more about Kevin and Ellen by reading their extended bios here.)

    Relatability and Relinquishing Power
    Through time, museums placed great importance on academic knowledge focused on historical facts. Global Guide tours break this pattern to help Penn Museum visitors opportunities to connect to ancient history through stories that resonate universally. 

    Offered free-of-charge in a museum that is focused on anthropology and archaeology, Global Guide tours are led by immigrants and refugees who have grown up in the origin countries of the exhibited objects – we currently have guides from the Middle East, Africa, Mexico, and Central America. Job descriptions and recruitment were in partnership with local agencies that serve these populations and were a win-win proposition to offering skilled people into professional positions.

    An hour-long tour has six stops at key objects, where the Guides describe the historical importance and key facts at each stop and then share a personal narrative that connects the object to a powerful memory from life in their former home country. They use iPads to show personal photographs, videos, and other materials to make their stories more concrete.

    Abraham Sandoval Iñiguez talks about the region of Mexico
    that his parents farmed in front of the artifacts from that region.

    While these tours use historical info to set the context for the artifacts and the people they represent, the guides’ own life stories and the relevance of these objects to their cultural groups are profoundly relatable to visitors, overcoming a challenge inherent to interpreting unfamiliar cultural material. For example, we learned through the Guides’ personal knowledge that spindle whorls are still used by older generations in Iraq and Syria – the guides had seen them used by their grandparents! The resulting tour stop focuses on a story about our guide receiving an ugly sweater as a gift from a well-meaning grandmother, crafted from yarn made with a spindle whorl, not unlike the 7,000-year-old example on display.

    The tours also add a layer of understanding through lived experience in places far away, allowing visitors glimpses into countries they may have only experienced through news stories – in fact, we know most visitors have no, or shallow, connections with people of these cultures, based on visitor data. Opportunities to get first-person insight into foreign cities and towns help to undermine stereotypes and misinterpreted histories.  The Guides are highly aware of the widely held misconceptions that Americans have about their parts of the world since they live within those constructs daily. We support them in politely declining conversation beyond the stories they choose to share – unless they wish to share more when visitors ask, which happens often.

    Celeste Diaz shows a photo of her speaking an indigenous 
    language in a Guatemalan pageant as a child during a 
    tour stop about carrying traditions into contemporary life. 

    Relinquishing Power
    As part of our training, we ask the Guides to think about the key learning objectives they would like visitors to take home after the tours.  Helping visitors to see beyond stereotypes has been core to the design of the tours, and the Guides accomplish this through both demonstrating the realities and contrasting these against the misconceptions. This shift of agency to the Guides, who represent often-marginalized communities that have legacies of colonialism, allows for their authentic voices to be heard as experts within the context of the Museum, rather than under the control of the Museum. We help them learn the facts and get professional storytelling training, but we don’t control their narratives.

    Clay Katongo, a present-day pastor, talks about divination baskets 
    and traditional religion in the Democratic Republic of the Congo 
    where he grew up.

    When asked “What is the best part of the tour?” visitors all note: “the guide’s personal stories,” or list their guide by name.  Yet nearly half of visitors share that they have had no or very little contact with a person of these origins before their tours.  By the end of the tour, over three-quarters say they are interested in learning more about the region their guide came from, particularly about its history, art, and culture. Participants also report they are more likely to support agencies that assist immigrants and refugees in their resettlement.

    From a recent visitor’s survey: “I have seen the galleries two times on my own, but having Moumena give us a tour in her eyes and history as a Syrian -complete with personal photos and anecdotes- was one of the most enlightening and pleasant museum experiences EVER!  I was for almost 40 years at the [OTHER MUSEUM NAME HERE] and have visited and continue to visit museums around the world but the time with Moumena shall long remain with me as one of the best anywhere.”

    Moumena Saradar proudly shows her family heirloom golden 
    jewelry nearby the gleaming adornments of Queen Puabi.

    Anyone can go on a Global Guides tour since we offer them for free to general visitors and offer financial assistance for private tours to groups that need it. We have delivered these tours to over 3,500 people since the program’s start in May 2018. Proximity has had a profound impact on our visitors, and our own Museum staff and trustees have enjoyed hearing fresh insights that humanize the collection and bring them closer to their Philadelphia neighbors.

    To learn more about the Global Guides program, please visit the Penn Museum website.  Thanks again to Kevin and Ellen for sharing this guest post!

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    Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

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