Is a spy still a spy if you know their story?

The countdown continues, one more day!  

Today, we went to the International Spy Museum, where Anna Slafer, Director of Exhibitions and Programs and Jackie Eyl, Youth Education Director, took us through the Spy Museum’s storytelling process.  Similar to Mount Vernon, Spy is undergoing a major ideological shift along with a major move.  Spy is moving to a stand-alone building by Washington, DC’s L’Enfant Plaza.  The physical move, while very complex, is less relevant to our storytelling topic, so we focused on the ideological shift.

From an outsider’s perspective, the old Spy ideology seemed to capitalize on the allure of spies and seem a little ‘education-lite’ or ‘edutainment’.  To understand the context for the shift we were introduced to the museum’s old thought process, that they would use pop culture as a way to access this complex information, but after being open for 15 years, and numerous forms of evaluation, they realize that visitors may not be having the major takeaways the museum wanted.

The new Spy ideology really focuses on the ethical grey area of espionage, brings the content up to modern-day, and has a larger emphasis on education.  From the presentation we saw today, it sounds like they are going to be using the stories of actual people to help connect visitors to the content.  We’ve seen this storytelling technique used in other museums over the course of the seminar, it seem to produce desirable results, making it easier for visitors to make those elusive personal and lasting connections.

Kudos to Anna, there has been one thing dancing around in my brain throughout the seminar that I could just not put into words, she really helped me make that connection today — a story is not a list of facts.  To be a story, you need tension and resolution.  Anna used this method ABT, the And/But/Therefor narrative.

I loved the amount of evaluation the Spy Museum has done throughout the whole move/revamp process.  From longitudinal studies, sifting through 15 years of collected visitor data, to formative evaluation on new exhibit interactives, you can see the museum is really trying to learn their audience, and make data driven decisions, not personal ones.  This little tidbit has also came up a lot over the seminar, and I have seen this in my professional life as well — museum professionals can be guilty of developing exhibits or programs for themselves, according to the things they want, not the visitor — this does not work.  Notoriously, museum professional do not like to let go of their ‘pet projects’.  Being data driven can really help navigate these touchy times.  I am particularly intrigued by the ‘discussion areas’  the museum is creating.  We read about these types of places in Nina Simon’s Participatory Museum, and Spy’s intentional design process, formative evaluation, and the realization that you need to do more than ‘post a question on the wall’ to get visitors to really delve into the topic makes me excited to see these in action!

Throughout this seminar, I visited many museums and heard from many museum professionals about their storytelling techniques.  I have learned how museums handle difficult topics, produce places for discussion, and elicit emotion and connect to their visitors.  I am excited to take the things I have learned and experienced with me as I embark on my new journey as Master’s Degree toting museum professional!


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