Meet a Museum Blogger

Meet a Museum Blogger: Susan Timberlake

After a two week travel hiatus (all over the great state of Ohio, Birmingham, Alabama, and New Orleans, Louisiana) Museum Minute is back! This week kicks off with Susan Timberlake’s Museum Blogger profile below.

Susan Timberlake began her museum career at the Museum of Life and Science in North Carolina. She’s since worked at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, the Smithsonian Institutional Studies Office, and the Museum of Science, Boston. Over the past several years, she’s developed science curricula for the Education Development Center and has been a freelance writer and editor. Susan is particularly interested in how creative thinking tools can span a variety of disciplines; many of her projects over the last fifteen years have allowed her to integrate STEM education with art and design. She’s currently learning about strategic foresight applied to museums, as a pilot tester in AAM’s first ever digital badging project.

Susan TimberlakeDo you work in a museum? If not, where do you work? Tell us about your job.

I’m an exhibit, program, and curriculum developer. I’ve worked for several museums and for an education consulting company, and done freelance writing and editing for a variety of organizations. Right now I’m looking for a new opportunity, most likely with a museum or an organization that does STEM/STEAM education and outreach.

What’s your educational background?

I have an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering, several years of graduate study in biomedical engineering, and a master’s degree in public policy focused on program evaluation and education policy. This varied educational experience has been useful in the museum world.

What was your ‘sticky’ moment?

I was taking a break from engineering graduate school, and doing all kinds of things – volunteering, working part-time jobs, taking adult ed classes – to explore what I might want to do instead. I saw this tiny ad in the campus newspaper about volunteer opportunities supporting educators at the local science museum. And I thought, “People work at museums. Why did I never notice that?” It was funny, because when I got my first paid museum job and I told my mother, she said, “I always thought you’d wind up working at a museum. I remember when we used to take you to the National Air and Space Museum and you had to read every single label.” And I said, “Could you have said something sooner? It took me an awfully long time to figure it out on my own.”

What is the name of your blog? How long have you been blogging?

My blog is called Every Word Counts: Thoughts about museum labels and interpretation. I’ve been blogging for about seven months. I chose my title because I think that when we interact with our visitors, even very subtle word choices can communicate something different, as demonstrated by this example, which I love even though it’s not museum-related.

What do you blog about? Why?

I blog about writing for museums, especially about writing labels, although a lot of my posts are applicable to writing in general. There’s so much complaining about bad labels from both within and outside the museum community; it’s true that writing good labels is hard, but there’s a lot that’s known that’s not always put into practice. Some of what’s known comes from academic literature that practitioners may not have time to keep up with or may not have easy access to. In some of my posts, I distill that information into a more usable form. In other posts, I rewrite existing museum labels to demonstrate how that information can be put into practice. Another reason to blog is that when I write about something I understand intuitively, or do research to back up advice I’m going to give, it’s a professional development experience for me.

What’s your most read blog post? Tell us about it.

Sins and Synonymity (Writing for English Language Learners, Technique #2). The main idea of the post is that using synonyms just for the sake of variety makes your writing harder to understand, especially for English language learners. The post also brings in two other themes that are important in my blog: One, there is research from non-museum fields that can help us write better for museum audiences. For this post, the support for the recommendation came from research about standardized testing. Two, there comes a point in a writer’s career when you have to choose which is more important—sounding smart to your peers (or teachers) or being understood by a larger audience.

What’s the last thing you bought at a museum gift shop?

Alphabeasties and Other Amazing Types, which I bought at the National Zoo. It’s a wonderful book, and I blogged about it here. It was intended as a gift for my children, but I like it even more than they do.

Do you tweet? Why or why not?

I do tweet, @STimberlakeMuse. Tweeting gives me the opportunity to follow and comment on topics that I’m interested in–for example, creativity, playful learning, and STEM education – even when they don’t fit in with the theme of my blog.

Name the last professional development book you read. Would you recommend it?

I’m currently reading Deborah L. Perry’s What Makes Learning Fun? Principles for the Design of Intrinsically Motivating Museum Exhibits. I do recommend it. I like that it talks about exhibits from an instructional design approach, which is uncommon in the museum field. Also, the book includes lots of recommendations about writing for museums. I plan to write a review of the book from that perspective when I’ve finished reading and digesting it, so subscribe to my blog and keep an eye out for the review!

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing museums today?

High-stakes testing is a huge challenge for museums. For many years, schools have been finding it increasingly hard to get the time and money for museum visits, because they often have to demonstrate the visit will support curriculum standards that tests are based on. As a result, many museums feel pressured to create exhibits that map to these standards. In addition, the testing culture lends support to the idea that museum exhibition evaluations should be able to show the same type of learning that happens in schools. That kind of learning can happen, but it’s not the only, or even necessarily the best, experience a person can have in a museum. But certain funders are now looking for school-type learning in museum exhibition proposals. So I think high-stakes testing is having a trickle-down effect on museums, making it difficult to get funding for some exhibitions that could be really wonderful.

Thanks for participating in Meet a Museum Blogger, Susan!

In case you missed it, Susan blogs at Every Word Counts: Thoughts about museum labels and interpretation.

Do you have additional questions for Susan regarding her profile above? Feel free to start a conversation in the comments below or reach out to her directly on Twitter at @STimberlakeMusePlease use the #MuseumBlogger hashtag. TY!

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