Sabbatical at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
Director of New Play Development, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Wilbur Wright (from the NASM collection)
Getting off the Ground
As Woolly Mammoth’s Director of New Play Development, I’ve long suspected parallels between my dramaturgical work and the work of curators and exhibit developers at the many museums that surround our theatre here in Washington. In July 2009, Woolly Mammoth co-hosted the annual Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas conference; we included a session called “Dramaturging the Museum” with representatives from the Newseum, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM), and the Folger Shakespeare Library. This fascinating conference session confirmed my instincts, and I called the Director of Exhibits at the Newseum to ask whether I might spend a sabbatical observing her work.
I was intrigued by the Newseum because their journalistic focus seemed particularly interesting from a dramaturgical perspective: journalists make constant choices about the authority, bias, and context of covering a story—surely these questions were central to the Newseum’s choices as well. And the Newseum was on the cutting edge of broadcast technology, with actual TV and radio studios embedded in the museum—an exciting way to see how electronic media can help shape a live narrative experience. I had lunch with the Newseum’s Director of Exhibits and we discovered a common passion to bring together stakeholders from DC’s various cultural institutions and provoke fresh exchanges.
But after a series of phone calls, emails, and meetings, the Director of Exhibits was unable to convince the Newseum’s administration to grant permission for me to observe her work. The administration’s concern was the blog you’re reading now: since I planned to document my observations on the TCG website, I might reveal plans for Newseum exhibits before the museum was prepared to release that information to the public. The Director of Exhibits sheepishly acknowledged the irony of a journalism museum squelching my First Amendment rights. But, she explained, the Newseum is a private corporation which depends on ticket sales to stay in business; therefore, the corporation closely guards their marketing and communications strategy.
Fired up by this challenge, I contacted Barbara Brennan, the Director of Exhibit Design at NASM. Soon I was sitting in her office, telling her about my frustrated attempt to collaborate with her counterpart at the Newseum. Barbara shook her head in surprise. She pointed out that when NASM exhibits are under construction on the museum floor, the safety barriers are deliberately kept low enough for visitors to watch the engineers installing and repairing aircraft or spacecraft. Sometimes, she said, engineers will take breaks to chat with the visitors about the new exhibits they’re assembling. The Smithsonian Museums, Barbara told me, “belong to the public,” and therefore seek to be transparent whenever possible.
Fortunately, Barbara also had a personal interest in trading information with me: she was originally trained as a theatrical set designer. I learned that one of her major accomplishments at NASM was an exhibit on the Wright Brothers that included performance spaces where actors playing Wilbur, Orville, and their sister to perform a miniature play for museum visitors. The exhibit was meant to be temporary, but its popularity won it a place in the museum’s permanent collection-- even after funds ran out to pay for actors and costumes for the play. Since then, Barbara had been itching to revisit performance in the museum space. We agreed I would spend a week exploring NASM, shadowing Barbara’s work, and brainstorming about connections between museums and theatres.
My first meeting at NASM felt a whole lot like season planning at Woolly Mammoth: I watched Barbara sit down with a photographer and a designer to discuss the rotation of temporary exhibits in NASM’s art gallery. For each show, they roughed out a budget for paint, lighting, and banners. Each exhibit, I learned, must be approved by the Public Programs Committee; in their pitches, designers must propose a strategy for funding each show. I told Barbara I was surprised by how immediately design planning became a budgeting task. She nodded, explaining that pairing donors with exhibits at a public museum could be a highly sensitive issue. For example, one artist had assembled a collection of NASM-related works and volunteered to pay to install them in NASM’s gallery himself. “Does that mean private artists are buying space here?” she asked.
This led us to a conversation about the weight of the Smithsonian’s perceived fairness and authority. Many exhibit developers, I learned, feel compelled to communicate a straightforward narrative that the museum’s partners—NASA, say, or even Boeing or Lockheed Martin—can approve. The range of stories told at NASM is also dictated in part by the collections the museum already owns. There have been many female aviators more accomplished than Amelia Earhart, Barbara pointed out. But the museum owns far more memorabilia of Earhart than of any other aviatrix—largely because Earhart so successfully cultivated her own celebrity status.
A theatre like Woolly Mammoth, on the other hand, enjoys a relative freedom to tell stories that deviate wildly from the “official” historical record—but is anyone listening? Woolly Mammoth will never have the number of visitors that NASM hosts every year. Is there a way for Woolly to be heard by more people, and for NASM to represent more unconventional voices? Barbara and I decided to talk more about narrative, performance, and audience with exhibit developers from other Smithsonian museums to get their perspectives.
A couple days later, Barbara and I hosted a pan-Smithsonian “brown bag lunch” for exhibit designers. The topic was “theatrical performance in exhibit space,” and we drew quite a crowd—I met representatives from the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies, the Zoo, and two museum authorities from outside the Smithsonian Institute who also heard about the lunch and wanted to join. We traded stories about stage combat performances at an arms museum in Kentucky; a comedy sketch about composting at an antebellum plantation home; a puppet show about frogs at the zoo. Most performances were conceived for children and families, but Vincent Scott, a Program Specialist from the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), described intensive collaborations with sophisticated Native American theatres and performers.
We discovered that NMAI enjoyed an unusual degree of administrative support for performances—and this connected to the question of narrative authority. By devoting museum space to Native performers, NMAI allowed Native Americans to tell their own stories in their own voices rather than via Smithsonian curators. Vincent pointed out that this sometimes caused discomfort for visitors: a performance of the Thanksgiving story from a Native perspective, for example, contradicted the narrative that many visitors accepted as true. I wondered what kind of meta-theatrical framing NMAI had used to bridge this distance between performers and visitors. Vincent said program notes and discussions with the artists sometimes helped.
But even “theatre etiquette” was unfamiliar to many museum visitors; we hard complaints about noise, sightlines, cranky docents, and other barriers to performance in spaces not built for live actors. The duration of performances proved a universal challenge. Visitors often devote only a few minutes to each exhibit—particularly at Smithsonian Museums, which are free (“They get their money’s worth,” Barbara lamented). And then there was the cost of performers. Even when administrators agreed to incorporate live performance into exhibits, Equity rules often constrained live performance, webcasts, and other electronic means to reach a wider audience.
Despite these challenges, the exhibit designers all enthusiastically embraced the idea of theatrical collaborations. I asked how we could work together to overcome some of these challenges: could actors perform five or ten minute teasers of plays during the day that are performed in their entirety at the theatre in the evening? Could we keep in touch as we plan our seasons to coordinate plays and exhibits that commemorate the same historical events and social questions? Could we consciously use the theatre as a platform for the voices of diversity and dissent not always represented at the museums? Theatres could certainly grow by reaching museum visitors, but could performances actually diversify museum visitors? For example, could theatre help lure more women to science and engineering exhibits?
We talked about the International Museum/Theatre Alliance; a study of these collaborations by the University of Manchester; and other potential resources. The Smithsonian Commons, a new pan-Smithsonian website designed to share information across the Institution and among visitors, might help shake up the “burden on authority” and democratize museum narratives. We agreed to keep the conversation going and explore more concrete ways to work together.
Later, Barbara and I put together a mini-survey of follow-up questions to help us imagine next steps. I emailed this to the lunch participants:
1) We discussed several challenges that face performances inside exhibit space: noise, cost, duration of the performance, visitors who lack “theatre etiquette.” Please list the major barriers you experience when trying to bring performance into exhibit space:
2) NASM sometimes presents lectures that aren’t an ideal fit for their IMAX theatre. Are there museum-related events that might fit better in a theatre space than a museum space? Could a downtown theatre like Woolly Mammoth be helpful in these cases?
3) Theatres plan most of their shows 1-2 years in advance; is there a way to coordinate this schedule with exhibit planning? What might be an effective model for sharing information about upcoming anniversaries, national, international, or environmental events that could inspire collaboration?
4) Are there perspectives and narratives that don’t always fit into a conventional exhibit? If you made a wish list of stories related to upcoming exhibits that you’d like to commission a playwright to create, what would be on it? (Dream big… maybe we can make it happen!)