Dan Joyce is the Executive Director at Kenosha Public Museums in Wisconsin and a renowned military historian and archaeologist. He runs The Civil War Museum, quick becoming one of the most renowned military history museums in the country. In homage to Memorial Day, Taylor Studios is incredibly blessed this week to have Director Joyce for an exclusive interview for The Field Journal, to talk about his work in both history and science museums.
Taylor Studios (TSI): Hello, Director Joyce – thank you so much for sharing your expertise and knowledge with our audience! Before we dig into questions about museum trends and “pain points,” can you perhaps tell us a little about your background? Where did you study, what sparked your love of museums, and what are you working on currently?
Dan Joyce (DJ): Thank you for asking me! I have wanted to work in museums since I was seven years old. A bit of an obsession. To pursue that, I did my undergrad at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. There I specialized in American military history and museum studies. While there I worked half-time at the University Museum. After that I worked at the Field Museum for almost four years, returned to graduate school at Eastern New Mexico University still pursuing and working in museums but branching out into archaeology too. After that I accepted a job as Curator of Exhibits and Collections at the Kenosha Public Museum. Five years ago, I moved to the Directorship. My career in museums has now spanned just under 40 years.
TSI: Do you have a favorite exhibit or exhibition that you’ve either seen or worked on? What exhibit and/or exhibition (anywhere, anytime) has made the greatest impression on you?
Dan Joyce (DJ): Wow, that is a tough one. I have been lucky in that I have created or helped create over 240 temporary exhibits, totally remodel an old museum and furnish it with dinosaur exhibits, as well as build two new museums and develop all new exhibits for those buildings. I do really like our permanent Potawatomi exhibit. I had the opportunity to develop this exhibit with the Forest County (WI) Potawatomi. We decided to concentrate on the way of life during the four seasons. Even better that Taylor Studios did this one!
TSI: It is 2017. What are some of the biggest “pain points” facing America’s museums and interpretive centers? What obstacles do they face?
Dan Joyce (DJ): I think that a real and unrecognized pain point for museums is relevance. We can see that there is a real issue in the United States today regarding the relevance, legitimacy, and the importance of art and science. As museum professionals, we know that both are incredibly important on many, many levels. In the past, these two disciplines did not reach out to the public frequently enough or in a way that made them important to the average American. Both disciplines are now paying for their lack of meaningful public engagement. Museum attendance across the US has been slowly declining over several years. Is this because we are not doing enough to engage the public? Younger generations are looking for an experience, not just a visit. Museums need to engage this demographic in a more meaningful way as well as engage the very youngest of our population – future museum supporters. We need to make sure that the experiences that we offer are unique and can only be offered at museums.
TSI: It seems that every day we read about a new museum pioneering virtual reality into their exhibits, or creating some new Disney-like high-tech exhibit, or spending millions of dollars on the latest and greatest screen-based multi-sensory experience. With big city museums utilizing such state-of-the-art technology, is it necessary for all interpretive centers to follow suit? Even if they struggle to afford it, should all museums try to go as “high-tech” as possible?
Dan Joyce (DJ): I will admit up front that I am all for immersive exhibits, to give the visitor a “you-are-there” feeling, but I do have a bias against too much technology in museums. I am not against all technology. It has its place but it can be quickly overdone in a manner that is not meaningful to our mission and educational goals. To put technology in place for the sake of technology (or keeping up with the Jones’) is a mistake. Even the biggest museums will not compete with the technology that the average American has access to on a 24/7 basis. Why do we need virtual reality when we have actual reality in the form of real objects and the power that those objects hold? Technology should be used exclusively to tell a better story of those objects and the people connected to them and how they connect to the world, past or present. That being said, at The Civil War Museum we have a 360-degree, ten minute movie which follows three men from the time they enlist to the aftermath of their first battle. Here we had to tell the story of the experience of battle. This has to be one of the most difficult interpretive tasks that a museum can take on. Combat veterans often say that the only ones who could possibly understand this experience are the ones who actually experience it themselves. So how do you do this while honoring the experience and sacrifice? In this case, we chose technology. Putting a person in the center of a 44-foot diameter screen that is 12 feet tall, putting them in the center of this experience was the only way to interpret combat. We wanted to give our audience a glimpse of what the men went through and have them develop empathy for people that they previously saw as flat, two dimensional, unsmiling sepia toned photographic images. In this case it was worth the risk. It is expensive and expensive to maintain but worth it, as we have achieved our goal. Developing empathy in our audience is also a goal of mine and has been for decades. This movie and the entire museum do that in a very focused way.
TSI: One “pain point” that many museums will probably always face is funding. How do museums, often with limited budgets, truly create engaging exhibits? Is it possible? What are some strategies?
Dan Joyce (DJ): The majority of museums cannot afford to put in state of the art exhibits without engaging in some sort of fund raising. I know of no museums, even the very largest ones that have enough money to operate daily and build new, state-of-the-art exhibits. With the decline in Federal and State funding for the arts, science and humanities museums must look elsewhere. Fortunately for most museums, governmental funding has been small. In fact, 77% of all contributed revenues come from individuals. This is true across all not-for-profit organizations. Yes, the loss of government revenues is felt in museums that often operate on a shoestring. Today, if a museum director and board are not working on diversifying their revenues, they are not doing their job.
Most museums have in house exhibit staff, even if it is only one part-time volunteer. Having multi-talented people on staff is often the only way to create engaging exhibits. It is possible but the staff must be dedicated, creative, multi-gifted, and willing to work long hours. At our three museums, we do an average of 20 exhibit changes annually. This is anything from hallway cases to major temporary exhibits that cover thousands of square feet. We have two full-time exhibit staff who are amazing and develop in-house exhibits to fill those galleries. They do it on a shoestring within a small line item budget. One has an art background and can work in any medium. The other has a construction, electronics, and computer repair background. I couldn’t ask for two better people to do the amazing job they do on a daily basis. It can be done, but only with the right people.
TSI: Another “pain point” is visitor growth. Many museums throughout the country are finding their visitors aging and their visitorship in decline. One way to grow visitorship is through offering engaging exhibits. Of your exhibits, which have you found to be the most popular among visitors? Why?
Dan Joyce (DJ): At the Kenosha Public Museum our most engaging permanent exhibits are the mammoth kill sites and the Potawatomi village. They tell fascinating Native American stories spanning a 14,000 year period. The Potawatomi exhibit is immersive, tells the story of life in Kenosha just before Euro-Americans moved in. The exhibit focuses on the four seasons and what life was like at this time. Being able to walk among the wigwams, the sugarbush, and eventually come to a trading post is very engaging. The mammoth exhibit tells the CSI story of how archaeologists work to uncover the story much the way a detective does. That form of engagement is something that people are drawn to. At The Civil War Museum, we have the film which is very popular but in the exhibit at the outbreak of war, we have a train where people can sit next to mannequins and hear the story of why they are on the move.
TSI: Finally, you are one of the top experts in the field. What is your best advice for someone starting their very first exhibit or museum project?
Dan Joyce (DJ): The first duty of any museum professional is to look at things at all levels with the visitor’s eye. You engage the potential visitor when they hear of you from a friend, or on TripAdvisor or your web site. That is when their visit begins. Follow them and see through their eyes from then until the time they leave and eventually talk to others about how they should visit your museum. Word of mouth is still the best marketing. All of this is important when developing a new exhibit. You have a mission and interpretive goals. How do they mesh with your potential audience? Who is your audience? Make the exhibit experience something that they can only get at your museum. Don’t forget about the power of objects, they tell a story! Create a story that people can easily identify with and develop empathy while visiting. Tell a narrative story and tell it about people. Even if it is a natural history story, tell it about the scientists, amateur naturalists, etc. Don’t be afraid to appropriately use humor or make them cry. Our stories have so much potential to move people and often museums are too afraid to take that step.
TSI: Before we let you go, do you have a book, blog, project website, or anything else which you’d like us to tell our readers about? We’d love to help promote all that you do!
Dan Joyce (DJ): Of course, being a museum director, I would say visit the Kenosha Public Museum, The Civil War Museum, and the Dinosaur Discovery Museum! We are located on Lake Michigan, between Chicago and Milwaukee. We are fortunate to be in a place that is beautiful and has 11.2 million people within a 100 mile radius. Over my last thirty years here, we have been able to create so many different long term exhibits that I cannot explain them adequately in a blog, book, website or other format. You have to visit and join the 259,000 who came last year!
TSI: Thank you so much, Director Joyce! And thank you for all that you do for the museum field and for the city of Kenosha. Your expertise serves as such an inspiration to people near and far!