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Lisa J., here, thinking about how to ask the right questions to museum visitors.  I love interactive exhibits, facilitated dialogues, and just about anything that offers audiences a chance to talk back to museums.  But I’ve found that asking the right questions can be immensely challenging.  Ask the wrong question and your audience becomes confused, or worse, disinterested in the exhibit or activity.  The right question, on the other hand, is like magic.  Audiences get involved, have new insights, feel empowered, and are more likely to say that their museum visit was personally meaningful.  Isn’t that what we’re all after?

So I was really pleased to see these posts on Museum 2.0 about designing questions in museums.  They’ll be really helpful as we design a new interactive exhibit for the Hull-House Museum, called “Unfinished Business.”

For the past year I have been facilitating conversations (links to .pdf article) on immigration and models of social change for high school and college groups.  At first, some of the questions I asked were completely useless, like the terribly broad and potentially stereotyping question, “Where do immigrants work?”

Some questions I still struggle with.  For example, I want to highlight Jane Addams’ boldness in starting a settlement house and question the power dynamics between residents and immigrants.  I sometimes ask, “what do you think would be the response today if two privileged white women moved into an under-served neighborhood of color to start a Settlement House?”  I like asking students to imagine Addams’s work in the present day, but this question isn’t necessarily effective because students often speculate about low-income neighborhoods and come to troubling conclusions.

But some of our questions have been refined and are really successful.  Here are some of my favorites.  Notice how open-ended they are:

  • Do you think the USA is a good place for an immigrant to settle?  Why or why not?
  • Based on what you learned in your tour, do you think immigration today is similar or different to immigration in Jane Addams’s day?
  • Do you think US citizens are responsible for helping to care for immigrants?  If yes, then how?  What about undocumented immigrants?

Still, I do struggle to find balance in my dialogues.  I have an agenda for these conversations, but I want students to come to conclusions themselves through the questions- not by my having to spell it out. One solution for me has always been to assert the history of our site.  This is especially useful if students make claims that are nonfactual or even racist. (“Immigrants used to work harder and wanted a better future than they do today.”  “Polish immigrants came to the United States legally, but it’s different with the Mexicans.”)

Have you struggled to ask the right questions in a museum setting?  Any tips or questions to avoid?

For more information on facilitated dialogues:

Cafe Society’s DIY Kit (.pdf document)

Essays by Sites of Conscience members on various museum dialogues (.pdf docuement)

This is our second edition of Meet the Staff, and I’m pleased to introduce the lovely Kelly!  Kelly has been at the museum for over a year, and she brings great organizational skills, creativity, and enthusiasm.


Meet Kelly!

How would you describe your work at the Hull-House Museum?

My work primarily involves the planning, coordinating, and managing of the Hull-House Museum’s public programs. I also assist in coordinating the events of our programming partners that take place at the Museum. Very recently, my responsibilities expanded to being the Volunteer Coordinator for the Re-Thinking Soup program and the Museum’s Urban Farm and Community Garden Project. I am very excited about this, as Re-Thinking Soup is one of my favorite core programs of the Hull-House Museum. The other part of my job involves being the Special Assistant to the Director, Lisa Lee, and assisting her in coordinating her personal events and activities in various political, cultural, and social arenas.

What are you currently working on at Hull-House?

Hmmm…what am I NOT working on at Hull-House is more of the question. Well, right now, I am working on organizing volunteers for Re-Thinking Soup and making sure we meet our deadline for the interim narrative report for the NEH grant!

What do you like about this work?

I enjoy the people: my colleagues, programming partners, and staff in other UIC departments. I also enjoy good and creative public programming and using my energies to bring ideas to the table and people together. It’s very rewarding to see it all come together. I also like the variety of things I get to do on occasion, which keeps things a little interesting.

What are the challenges?

The pace can get pretty hectic at the Hull-House, so you just have to hang in there with the ebb and flow of it all. Also, there are always interesting and creative brainstorming sessions going on, which is a good thing. However, I work in an open office space, so it’s difficult to completely remove myself from the impromptu discussions. Sometimes, I want to have an imaginary wall that is impenetrable, so I can block myself off. I have to be really disciplined at times and resist wanting to jump in on every yummy conversation!

Name a previous experience that has helped to prepare you for this work.

Before coming to the Hull-House, I worked at an Institute at Columbia College Chicago that did a lot of public programming. I was involved in much of the planning and coordinating and developed a lot of relationships with people from different departments on campus as well as community partners from different cultural, social, and civic organizations. The work I did there definitely prepared me for my current position at the Hull-House Museum.

What is your favorite artifact in the museum?

My favorite artifact in the Museum is Jane Addams dress. It’s a bit surreal to know that this is a dress this amazing and world-renowned woman wore; that her skin actually touched this dress is really something.

What do you do when you aren’t hard at work?

When I am not at the Museum, I am most likely doing two things 1) working with Affinity Community Services, where I serve as Vice President of the Board of Directors (I just got voted in on Saturday. Yay!). We are a non-profit organization founded on the South Side of Chicago that provides advocacy, services, programming, and leadership development for Black lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women. 2) Sharing a meal and enjoying spending time with my partner, my favorite thing to do.

What is your all-time favorite museum?

I don’t have an all-time favorite museum. However, I love the Museum of Science and Industry and enjoy visiting the Field Museum and the National Museum of Mexican Art. I was in San Francisco about a month ago and visited the GLBT Historical Society in the Castro neighborhood. It is a small and very modest museum but is an example of one that uses the artifacts they have well. The exhibit there that moved me the most is of the suit and shoes Harvey Milk was wearing when he was killed. To see the fabric, to look at the shoes and know that his feet were in them, and to see the blood stains on parts of the clothing was really compelling. I was not expecting to see an exhibit like that, especially at such a modest museum. It was very powerful and sobering and really reminded me of all the history that took place in the Castro. It brought that history to life for me in that moment even more.

If you were a Hull-House resident, who would you be?

I would be Mary Rozet Smith. From what I know of her, she was an accomplished and civically engaged woman in her own right that put her money and resources where her mouth was. She was a quiet force that does not get the attention and glory that Jane Addams and some of the other women receive, but that didn’t appear to be important to Smith. She gave back to communities she felt connected to and part of. Plus, she was Jane Addams’ right-hand woman. You can’t get any better than that!!

What is a Museum?

Here is everything you need to know.

I agree with trulyeducated.  This is roll-on-the-floor hilarious. (Original post at Center for the Future of Museums.)

Sam Kass

Sam Kass: chef for the Obama family, former Hull-House Museum staff

Sam Kass used to be the Hull-House Museum’s executive chef for our Re-thinking Soup program.  Now he cooks for the President and his family at the White House.

Today’s story in the New York Times describes how he is influencing more than just Sasha and Malia’s taste for spinach….  Of course, we’d like to think that Sam’s knowledge of today’s critical food issues was shaped by his work at the museum.  Way to go Sam!

A visit to off-site storage is always a wonderful way to see more of the Hull-House Collection. On a recent trip to the warehouse, Mike, Amy, and Teresa set off to find artifacts for the new exhibition.

Although we had ideas in mind for which objects to retrieve, we stumbled upon many mementos that sparked our imagination about creative ways to celebrate the rich history of the Reformers, Residents, and Neighbors of Hull-House. We ran across several wonderful objects, now under consideration for display.

For example, Mike discovered an exuberant elevator sign, which could be used to frame the future lift in the Museum.

elevator sign

Amy uncovered a fanciful sofa that, with a touch of restoration, could serve as a place for visitors to sit and read from the Library and ponder the influences of Hull-House.


Teresa chanced on some table lamps that would be amazing additions to the Museum space, bringing aglow the exhibition and architectural features of the House.


Lastly, we shared enthusiasm over a small, green table with expandable leaves, a whimsical illustration for the Mary Crane Nursery School.

kindergarten table

We are only scratching the surface of the Collection. More exciting objects are sure to come! Look for future previews of artifacts here on the blog. Of course, if you have a memento of your favorite Hull-House Reformer, please share by posting comments. We’d love to hear from you!

Welcome to the first edition of our Meet the Staff series!  Today you’ll meet our Exhibit Coordinator, Naomi, a talented new addition to the staff.  What did we ever do without her??

Naomi, hard at work

Naomi, hard at work

How would you describe your work at the Hull-House Museum?
I am the exhibition coordinator at the museum, so I get to manage the whole production of the exhibition that is slated to open a year from now.

What are you currently working on for the new exhibit at Hull-House?
Currently I’m trying to track down some interesting artifacts related to Grace and Edith Abbott, two sisters who spent about 10 years living and working at Hull-House. But I’m also working on about 7 or 8 other projects at the same time. I’m also spending a little time every day searching the collection database so I can get to know what we have tucked away in all our various storage areas.

What do you like about this work?
I like the fact that I get to work on several projects at once; some of it is intellectual and research-based and some of it is organizational and busy work. It’s a great mix.

What are the challenges?
Even though I like how varied my role is at the museum, it can be a challenge to switch gears between busy work and research. And we have a very chatty and lively office (which I love!) but it can also make it that much harder to delve into the archives or get all that reading done. Another hard thing is having to nag people to get stuff done. No one likes to be a nag, but someone has to do it.

What is your favorite artifact in the museum?
Right now I’m completely enmeshed in the vast photography collection. The
images in the holdings of the museum and the UIC Special Collections are
priceless. It’s unfortunate that we can’t exhibit more of them.

What do you do when you aren’t hard at work?
I’m a bit of a homebody, so I spend time there, cooking, hanging out with my husband, doing crossword puzzles, playing scrabble, and lots of reading. But we also go out and spend lots of time with family and friends… which usually involves eating.

What is your all-time favorite museum?
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It’s where I became an
art historian.

If you were a Hull-House resident, who would you be?
I don’t know yet, but I’m sure by the time this exhibit is installed I will.