What do seashells and aerospace have in common?

Today was the first full day of the JHU storytelling seminar!  The morning began with breakfast and coffee at the JHU Washington, DC campus.  Then Ronnie White, Associate Director of AAP Professional Career Services, joined us and got us thinking about our own professional story.  Your professional story can, and should, have three unique iterations,  the elevator pitch, the introduction, and the headline.  These are three important tools to have in your networking toolkit, and tools that I did not realize were different.  It was during this session that the title of this blog post came up, something along the lines of, “how would your love of sea shells be relevant to a curator at the Air and Space museum?”  Your elevator pitch needs to be relevant to your audience, the underlying assumption, an Air and Space Curator might not find seashells relevant to aerospace.  But are they?  

After our session with Ronnie White, we had a whirlwind storytelling workshop with Tim Wendel, Writer in Residence, MA in Writing Program, JHU.  Then an Object Based Learning workshop with Judy Landau, a JHU Museum Studies faculty member and Internship Coordinator.

After a morning chock-full of storytelling and Object Based Learning at the JHU Washington, DC campus,  I ventured down with the rest of the April DC seminar to the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) and National Portrait Gallery (NPG) to test out our newly developed skills!

We got to SAAM a few minutes early and decided to enjoy a little time in the sun sitting on the stairs outside of the museum. 

Upon arrival to SAAM, we went on a tour of the Lunder Conservation Center.  There we met with Abigail Choudhury, Lunder Center Coordinator, and were introduced to the conservator’s motto, “don’t do anything that can’t be undone”, and how conservators are like a three-legged stool supported the three “legs” chemistry, studio art skills, and art history.  On the surface, this may seem like a departure from the storytelling and OBL day we started out with,  but after delving into the work of a conservator a little further the epiphany came!  The work of the conservator on a work of art forever becomes part of that work of art’s story.  Also, and this may be a secondary point, but when considering mounts and frames for art, you should think about how these elements affect the story.  A bad mount can interrupt the story.

After our tour of the Lunder Conservation Center, we moved on to our storytelling activity at NPG!

For this activity, we were first given about 15 minutes to wander the galleries and select a portrait that stood out to us.  I selected Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of LL Cool J.  I was drawn to this photo because of LL Cool J’s look on his face.  This look, confident and defiant, is not one that I could fake, it has to come from within.

The portrait I chose of LL Cool J,  by Kehinde Wiley, oil on canvas, 2005.

Then, we were asked to partner up, introduce each other to our portraits, and write the fictional story of how these two people met.

I partnered up with Andrea O, and she selected a portrait of Mary McLeod Bethune painted by Betsy Graves Reyneau.  Mary McLeod Bethune also had this expression on her face, self-assured, like she has earned her place in the world.

The portrait Andrea chose of Mary McLeod Bethune, painted by Betsy Graves Reyneau, Oil on Canvas, 1943.

After “meeting” these two people, it quickly became clear, they were both badasses and they communicated this through the expressions on their faces. Therefor they met at the unofficial “badass convention” where LL Cool J gave Mary McLeod Bethune his cane to give her “swank” (Mary’s actual words!)

The activity was interesting and engaging, but now I am thinking, how I can bring this combination of storytelling and Object Based Learning into my museum practice?  I have always been a champion for Object Based (I am adding Inquiry Based, visitor-led to this) Learning, but have yet to incorporate the storytelling element in a meaningful way.  I can see the value, but am still mulling on the implementation.

Until next time!


P.S.  Corrugated structures.  If you’re wondering why the Air and Space Curator might be interested in seashells.  Aerospace is all about being light and strong, what better place to learn about this than from nature’s master?  Seashells.


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