in Museum 

In Quest of Myth: A Prototype Multi-Museum Thematic Tour

Helen Glazer


In Quest of Myth was a prototype self-guided walking tour of nine Smithsonian Institution museums that I created and tested with visitors as a Fellow in Museum Practice there from 1994 to 1995. The Smithsonian offers a concentration of museums within walking distance of each other with collections related to art, anthropology, science, history, technology and aeronautics. As the director of the Rosenberg Gallery at Goucher College, which concentrates on temporary exhibitions of contemporary regional art, I have received frequent feedback from visitors that they greatly appreciate the educational booklets that accompany our shows. These texts provide background information that helps them to interpret the work and points out relationships that they might otherwise miss. I wondered how a similar experience could be created on a larger scale, tying together the Smithsonian's rich collections representing different disciplines, cultures and eras in history. I proposed a booklet that would direct people to specific objects in permanent collections related to a particular theme. Any theme with interdisciplinary implications could work, but I chose mythology for the prototype because it is a scholarly subject with broad popular appeal, and one with sufficient breadth to insure that enough relevant objects could be found. At the outset of my project these were my goals:

@ To offer a new activity that would attract repeat visitors.

@ To give visitors a structured activity that helps them utilize permanent collections.

@ To encourage cross-museum visitation. For example, 90 percent of visitors to Smithsonian museums concentrate on "The Big Three"-the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of American History and the National Museum of Natural History (Doering and Bickford, 1994, p. iii). In the context of a tour, some might be more likely to also visit art museums.

@ To provide visitors with fresh perspectives on art and myth.

@ To provide an enjoyable "treasure hunt" activity for adults that could also be a pleasant way to spend time with another person, since more than 90 percent of visitors to the Smithsonian come with at least one other person, and about 55 percent come in groups of two or more adults, excluding tour groups (Doering and Bickford, 1994, p.vi).

@ To create and assess a model for multi-museum tours which could be used at the Smithsonian and in other cities with a concentration of museums.

Regarding the assessment, I developed a questionnaire to be administered by telephone to visitors who completed the tour with my Smithsonian sponsor, Zahava D. Doering, Director of the Institutional Studies Office. A computer search of magazines, national newspapers and scholarly journals showed no evidence of either a thematic brochure or self-guided tour across institutions elsewhere. Museums tend to focus on the objects within their own walls and to develop programming independently of each other. The Smithsonian museums, like those in any city, are an array of institutions that operate separately rather than in concert, each with its own culture, hierarchy, agenda and interests, with the exception of the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, which share a staff. This made the Smithsonian a perfect laboratory for this project.

Content and Structure of the Tour

How does one approach a project of this complexity? To make the tour practical to follow, I decided at the outset to create four groups of two to three museums, each of which would take about 45 minutes to complete. Written directions and maps direct the visitor to each object. Each entry in the 16-page booklet has a brief paragraph devoted to it, with one or two essential sentences in boldface type for those who do not want to read the whole paragraph. The writing style I was aiming at was newspaper-feature-story rather than academic, and where appropriate I injected a little humor.

A short essay titled "What is a myth?" introduces the tour. I explain that while the word "myth" can be used in pejorative ways to characterize views outside oneís own religion, or to describe popular but unscientific beliefs, that is not the case here. Instead we are dealing with "traditional stories of events that illustrate a world view and explain the origins and workings of nature and human beings. Frequently these are sacred stories concerned with divine or supernatural beings... Concerned with dramatic, miraculous events, myths present the forces of the universe in vivid, symbolic terms." (Glazer l995, p.2) It is explained that myths teach us about basic human issues, especially the challenges we face at various stages of life. The premise behind this tour is an optimistic one, that myths offer us a way to learn about the belief systems of different cultures, and to also find parallels with our own experiences which may surprise us: "Myths take us on a journey into the heart and soul of a culture and if we are receptive, into our own hearts and souls as well." (Glazer, 1995, p.2)

Following the written directions and maps, the visitor begins inside the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Among the sculptures here is an abstract bronze named Cronos by Isamu Noguchi. The text explains:

"Cronos, a giant who violently deposed his own father as king of the gods, was warned that he was in turn destined to be overthrown by one of his own children, so he swallowed them as they were born. The arch apears to represent Cronos, the five suspended forms his children. Cronosís wife tricked him into eating a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes instead of the sixth child, Zeus, who was sent away to be raised in secret. (In fact, until you walk around the sculpture, the five forms look like six - could this be a reference to the fact that Cronos, too, misperceived how many were there?) Eventually the grown Zeus returned, Cronos was forced to vomit up his children, and, led by Zeus, his children prevailed to become the gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus. Scholars speculate that Cronos was originally a fertility god who was supplanted by the Greek pantheon, and this myth may recount that transition in symbolic terms. But the story has more interest to us today as a symbol of the enduring truth that each generation is destined to take over leadership from its elders, and the inevitable transition can only be forestalled for so long." (Glazer 1995, p.3)

After looking at some other sculptures, one exits the Hirshhorn and descends into its outdoor sculpture garden to see more. Then it is a five-minute walk to the National Air and Space Museum, where Gemini, Mercury and Apollo space capsules are displayed. The booklet explains why NASA named the spacecraft and chose the word "astronaut" after figures in Greek mythology. An eclectic group of objects are included on the tour: a beautiful gold 17th century Chinese sundial with a dragon base, Art Deco air race trophies and an exhibition titled "The Red Baron: Legend and Reality." The latter shows how the exploits of the German fighter pilot known as the Red Baron were romanticized and exaggerated within a very short period of time. I thought it was important to emphasize that the myth-making process is neither defunct - something from the distant past - or a feature of "backward" or "superstitious" cultures but is part of our own culture:

"Perhaps he was ripe for mythologizing, because elements of his story resonate so well with classic mythic themes-the youth who travels into the realm of the heavens, to do battle with the forces of evil (at least from his perspective) and whose daring as a warrior is respected even by his enemies." (Glazer, 1995, p.6)

Throughout the booklet, I refer to objects seen earlier in the tour in order to point out recurring themes. I was very clear from the start that this would not be, "Hereís a myth, hereís a different myth, and hey! hereís another" - I wanted a broader picture to emerge. For example, the visitor locates a stone carving of the Hindu god Ganesha in the Sackler Gallery and reads that the story of how he got his elephant head is connected to the Greek tales of Cronos and Hephaestus, who are represented by sculptures on the Hirshhorn portion of the tour. All three of these myths tell of the resolution of an intense power struggle between father and son.

Having viewed several objects at the Sackler and Freer Galleries and the National Museum of African Art, the visitor is directed to cross the Mall to the National Museum of Natural History. This section of the tour includes items from the anthropology halls, from massive totem poles to Malaysian shadow puppets to bark paintings by Aboriginal Australians. The first object, at the entrance to the Oceania and Pacific Cultures Hall, is a small carved wooden figure identified in the case only as being from Arnhem Land, Yirrkalla, Australia. The museum's card catalog turned up a more complete story which I incorporated in the guide. This particular object also highlights another problematic issue in writing a wide-ranging tour - attempting to give a brief introduction to an unfamiliar and highly complex culture. In the first few sentences I try to set the scene and put this story in some kind of context:

"The designs in the art of Arnhem Land encode complex meanings which have developed over thousands of years. Through artwork, artists connect the earthly and spiritual realms, recreate the actions of their ancestors who painted the first designs, and maintain their deep spiritual connection to the land. Yirrkalla is on the seacoast. This figure is Gunamungu who would walk alone among the mangroves collecting mangrove-oysters."

The National Museum of American history provides some American popular culture artifacts to relate to classic themes previously identified in other cultures and in the other museums. A Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costume from a Hollywood movie prompts a discussion of the powerful mythic elements to be found in the Ninja Turtle story. (They survived a treacherous passage to the underworld (they were dropped down a manhole into the New York City sewer system!) where they were transformed (by exposure to radioactive material) into half-animal, half-human creatures, yet they transcended their circumstances by undergoing training in the martial arts to become warriors for the forces of good, fighting the forces of evil. Elsewhere an enormous 19th century marble statue portrays George Washington as Zeus, chief patriarch of the Greek pantheon, complete with toga and sandals. A display case of Wizard of Oz paraphernalia, including Dorothy's ruby slippers from the I939 movie, is linked with a Northwest Coast Native American totem pole in the Museum of Natural History, Story of Long Sharp Nose. Both are what scholars of comparative mythology call quest stories, where a youth makes the passage from child-like dependency to adult self-reliance in the course of a journey.

The tour continues off the Mall at the National Museum of American Art and the National Portrait Gallery, two halves of one building about a 10 to 15 minute walk from the National Museum of American History. Actually, no one in my pilot group went off the Mall on the same day that they went to the Mall museums, although some returned on another day to complete that part of the tour.

The Process of Writing the Tour

I expected at the outset that I would have plenty of myth-related material to choose from. Indeed, after trekking through all the museums in search of myth-related material, I had about 35 pages of handwritten notes, from which I selected 194 of the most interesting objects to enter into a database, created with Microsoft Excel. For each entry I recorded the title, artist, date, medium and culture of the artwork, culture of the myth, location, whether it was easy or difficult to find, and rated its visual interest and appeal. Obviously these ratings were based on my own subjective impressions but I considered the size and condition of the object, the ease of finding the mythic content, and its dramatic, beautiful and unusual qualities. As a practical matter, it seemed important that in presenting people with the challenge of finding unfamiliar objects and doing considerable walking, they should be able to spot the objects easily and not have to puzzle over a worn object trying to figure out the location of the hero of the story.

The most important, and most difficult, part of the process was winnowing these objects down into a meaningful tour. I began talking to education and collection curators to get more information and recommended reference material. I took another walk through museums that I had visited over a period of several months early in the project and was able to eliminate about 40 objects which were not visually striking or which my research showed were not connected to myths. Using Excel's data sorting capabilities, I came up with general categories for the myths. Grouping them together, I could see a preponderance fit into one of three themes: part-animal/part-human creatures, battles between good and evil and other realms. I took an informal poll at the National Museum of Natural History, presenting visitors with the alternatives and asking them to choose the one that sounded most interesting. After speaking to only 20 people "other realms" was the clear winner, with animals a distant second, and battles between good and evil gleaning just two votes. I was able to further narrow my database, eventually arriving at a set of 66 objects. In making the final selection, I made sure to represent the widest possible varieties of cultures and gave priority to interesting stories and to things that were easy to find or located near other myth-related objects.

The next big challenge was gauging how much information to include in the booklet. As a non-specialist in these cultures, I was frequently writing about traditions I had no previous exposure to, or very cursory knowledge. In a way, this was helpful: I could see things from the typical visitor's point of view and perhaps was less likely to take a certain knowledge base for granted. Already concerned that this tour not get overbearingly lengthy, I strove to keep the entries succinct yet not superficial, and to at least allude to the awesome complexity of every culture included.

Lessons from the Visitor Assessment

From the outset, the natural constituency for the tour seemed to be Washington, DC-area residents; my goals included creating a special activity which would give people a reason to come to the Smithsonian, much as a temporary exhibition would and introducing them to "new" museums or areas within them. The tour did in fact attract the type of visitor I expected. I posted a request for participants to test a tour on myth at the Smithsonian on two Internet Usenet Newsgroups, <dc.smithsonian> and <alt.mythology>. I received 50 responses and of that group 11 ultimately came to the Smithsonian, picked up a tour and called in to be interviewed by the Institutional Studies Office staff. All were from Washington, DC, and the surrounding suburbs, all but one of them went into museums they had never been to before and many spontaneously cited the discovery of an interesting new place to visit as one of their favorite aspects of the tour. I collected responses to the tour from a total of 14 people.

The visitorsí most frequent observation about the text was that they found it helpful, and many noted that they gained an appreciation of objects they had never gotten much out of before, such as modern sculpture. They also confounded the expectations of many museum people who told me "people won't read all that stuff"- everyone did - all of it. Only one person, an out-of-town tourist, complained that it was too wordy, while five of the interviewees, when asked what changes they would recommend, said they would have liked more information about certain items. If museums hope to entice visitors to return more often, I recommend that they provide pathways to rediscover the collections in different ways. Art museums in particular could use more extensive interpretative materials in a visitor-friendly format. There is resistance to this notion in some quarters - during the process of planning the tour I met with initial reactions to my idea of connecting different museums in this way that ranged from blunt skepticism to enthusiasm, which I am sure is not unique to the Smithsonian. Enthusiasts loved the idea of creating relationships across museums and offering a new activity to visitors. Skeptics doubted that the staff would cooperate with me or that visitors would be motivated to spend the time or do the walking necessary, or thought that the theme was over the head of the average visitor.

Based on my limited contact with visitors, I would say it depends on the target audience and the available resources for marketing. I would have liked to expand my visitor assessment, but had time constraints and no access to any of the usual means of public relations: media coverage; notices in the members' newsletter and on the World Wide Web site; advertising, brochures and signage at the visitor information desks; etc. My two-week test period occurred during a run of stupefyingly hot muggy weather and I wonder if that defeated the best intentions of some of the Internet group to drive into downtown Washington for a walking tour. Also, many people are happy to take a tour but will not participate in a research project The fact that 11 of them came anyway points to an interesting side issue - the potential of the Internet as a marketing tool for museum activities. It stands to reason that someone involved in an Internet discussion group probably enjoys discovering new information and likes to voice opinions. All but one of the people who took the tour from the Internet group were in the 20 to 35 year age group, which suggests that the Internet is an excellent place to reach young adults. More research would be needed to determine whether people in this age group are the target audience for such a tour, although two people over 60 also reported a positive experience with it. Eight of the people who took the tour went with one other person, a figure almost identical to the proportion of all Smithsonian visitors attending with at least one other adult (see Introduction).

It does seem that tourists visiting Washington and other cities are more likely to consider a museum as one notable attraction among others that they must see (e.g., the Washington Monument and the Capitol). Therefore if they take a tour at all, they will opt for one that focuses on well-known objects. However, I do think that a thematic multi-museum tour could be marketed to out-of-town visitors as, say, a component of an Elderhostel course which would offer related lectures in a classroom setting. A university continuing education or extension program could potentially collaborate with the museum to offer something similar to the local population. A tour could also be offered as a membership incentive. If the museums on the tour charge separate admission fees, visitors might be attracted by the opportunity to enter several museums on one reasonably-priced ticket.

I also think that tours such as this one have great potential for interactive computer media, such as the National Gallery of Artís Micro Gallery, which already helps visitors locate objects on specific subjects and allows them to print out a self-designed tour. If the database provided the appropriate categories within a given subject, visitors could construct a tour with multiple links across cultures, subjects, themes, etc. Another use for multi-museum thematic tours is offering such a tour to school groups as part of an arts-in-education experience, incorporating it with other materials into a curriculum package. In late 1995, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts put up a World Wide Web site with 24 objects from their collection and materials on myth so that teachers in grades K-12 can do just that (Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1995).

Implications of the Multi-Museum Thematic Tour for the Museum Field

A multi-museum thematic tour will never supplant the traditional temporary exhibition, where objects are gathered from several locations and installed together in a given space. There are special insights to be gained by seeing actual objects in physical proximity. However, the multi-museum thematic tour can fulfill some of the same functions as a temporary exhibition at a much lower cost, offering visitors an educational experience and a special reason to visit the museum. Tour booklets can be produced inexpensively and a small fee, such as one dollar, can defray the costs yet keep it accessible. Meanwhile, unlike a typical temporary exhibition, there are no costs associated with shipping, exhibit design and installation and no need to negotiate with curators reluctant to move valuable or fragile objects. Some temporary exhibitions do bring in new visitors and reintroduce the museum to people who have not come in years. However, this tour also encourages cross-museum visitation, and therefore has the potential to attract new visitors to several museums at once, or to promote tourism in downtown areas.

In Quest of Myth was assembled over a period of several months, but in terms of actual days it represents almost three months of full-time work on my part, including the research, writing and visitor assessment. The entire process would be dramatically streamlined if the curators in the various museums were enlisted to identify appropriate objects and draft the booklet entries, or at least provide information about the objectís relation to the theme and the cultural and historical context within which the object was created. The project director's responsibility would be to decide which objects related most strongly and what background information the average visitor would need, and to add text comparing and connecting different objects, thereby shaping the tour into a coherent whole.

The multi-museum thematic tour suggests alternative ways to look at collections, constituting fruitful areas for investigation by curators of traditional temporary exhibitions and installations of permanent collections. Conventional exhibitions and installations segregate art and historical artifacts by culture and period, which is a sensible way to convey the Zeitgeist of an era, but closes off other possible conclusions about the meaning and importance of these objects. The multi-museum thematic tour, on the other hand, breaks down disciplinary lines, juxtaposes historical periods and cultures and integrates the fine arts and popular culture. Yet because none of the objects are physically moved from their usual location in the museum, they can simultaneously be seen within the context of their culture and period if that is indeed how the museums organize them. As more of our visitors experience links on the World Wide Web, which allows one to easily jump from one resource to another, they will become even more receptive to the kind of non-linear and open-ended explorations of information that a multi-museum thematic tour offers.

I suppose I have been influenced by this project into seeing mythic themes everywhere, including the process of completing this fellowship project. As in any classic quest, I did not accomplish this alone, but was assisted in tackling these difficult tasks by a number of people along the way, especially Zahava Doering, as well as the Smithsonian curators and others who gave me information and feedback. I met my challenges, I finished my journey and I am eager to embark on my next adventure in the realm of multi-museum tours.

(Helen Glazer is Director of the Rosenberg Gallery at Goucher College, Baltimore, Maryland. She was a recipient of the Smithsonianís Fellowships in Museum Practice and worked under the sponsorship of Zahava Doering, Director, Institutional Studies Office, Smithsonian Institution.)

In Quest of Myth Reading List

Doering, Z.D. and Bickford, A. Visits and Visitors to the Smithsonian Institution: A Summary of Studies. Washington, DC: Institutional Studies, Smithsonian Institution. 1994.

Glazer, H. In Quest of Myth: A Multi-Museum Tour. Unpublished fellowship project,

Center for Museum Studies, Smithsonian Institution. 1995.

Minneapolis Institute of Arts. "World Mythology." World Wide Web site <http:/www.mtn.org/MIA/mythology>. Minneapolis, MN. 1995.


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