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More Than a Night at the Museum: Duquesne University Professor Shapes Future Smithsonian Exhibits

Behind every display in a museum is an interesting story, and Duquesne University Education Professor Dr. James Schreiber has had a chance to be a story teller at the country’s top museums.

Schreiber, a visiting research scholar at the Smithsonian Institution Office of Policy and Analysis in Washington, D.C., has focused on evaluating and improving visitors’ experiences with exhibits like those found in the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), the National Postal Museum, the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of Natural History, as well as the non-Smithsonian Holocaust Museum.

He explained that it’s all about creating an “especially satisfying experience” for visitors.  “I try to help teams find great stories and ideas behind the objects so that people who show up at the museums get to see great objects, and people who are interested in the personal stories get that, and those who want to know the details or big ideas behind the objects get that,” said Schreiber. “I have also been working on trying to help think about how to engage visitors who want to physically engage with the museum. For example, how can we set up a display to attract, engage and point people to a really amazing piece of new information that they might have missed?”

Many current exhibits have interactive technology such as video kiosks, and Schreiber is helping to determine how current and future exhibits can be set up, what features they will include and project how visitors will respond.

“As we work to engage visitors, technological components are being integrated more and more,” Schreiber said. “The ‘Windows on Collection’ is a good example in the NMAI where a touch screen kiosk in front of the display case lets you examine high resolution pictures of the artifacts up close. It also provides extra information about the artifacts in the display.”

Of all of his projects—from touch-screen encounters to refocusing the American Indian windows on children and Hawaii, to updating the Spark! Lab at the American history museum, preparing for next year’s Girl Scouts anniversary, developing new maps of the natural history museum and evaluating education programs at the Holocaust Museum—Schreiber’s favorite experience has been visiting the Cultural Resources Center for the NMAI, which is the major artifact storehouse and archival center.

“It holds hundreds of thousands of objects and documents,” Schreiber said, including 1,500-year-old hand-carved pottery, an enormous totem pole and a double canoe. “The exhibit design team met there with the archivists to discuss objects that will be included in a revised exhibit.”

Growing up in the Southwest, Schreiber, a Mount Lebanon resident, has found working with the NMAI a fascinating experience and is eager to share his experiences with Duquesne students in the spring semester. “This is a great deal of fun, and it is putting all of my knowledge about learning, research and evaluation on the front line,” he said.

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability. Follow Duquesne University on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.