Bill Tramposch uses examples of different museums, museum exhibits, and authors to show examples of how different audiences and visitors experience learning. This is a printed version of Bill’s keynote address to the Developing History @SHA Leaders Class of 2012.

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The following is an excerpt:

Colleagues, do you know how The Hobbit was written? Professor J.R.R. Tolkien was sitting at his desk in Oxford grading a formidable pile of examination papers in his field, linguistics. The exams were brimming with undergraduate wisdom, all except one that is. This one was blank. So, it was in this one that Tolkien, after some daydreaming, drew a little picture and under this picture he wrote, “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit….”

That poor wordless student, that “mute inglorious Milton” should have received an “A” (if not an honorary doctorate) for his lack of effort on the exam, for from this white space was born one of the most popular books in the English language, The Hobbit, or There and Back Again.

This following essay is about the importance of white space. Like an episode of Seinfeld (without the humor), this piece is about nothing, and the importance of nothing. Enjoy it. There are no footnotes here, no expostulation on decades of scholarly research into museum education theory, just thirty-five years of observation, first as an interpreter and now as a director, with a lot of reverent looking-on in-between.

Wellington, New Zealand

In 1996 the Senior Management Team of the National Museum of New Zealand spent three days in a hotel conference room on the Wellington waterfront. Across the street, construction continued on a new, state-of-the-art museum. For its size, the museum had a disarmingly simple name, Te Papa. Senior marketers from Saatchi and Saatchi facilitated the meeting, and it had one purpose: to arrive at what marketers there call the “soul” of the Te Papa experience. We were to create a forum for the country to explore matters of national identity, but needed to answer what was to be the essence of this experience.

Now, this was much more than a discussion about mission and objectives. This was an effort to get to the affective core of what we strove to do once the concrete cured and the exhibitions and programs filled the cavernous spaces of what is now the biggest building in the country. The NZ America’s Cup Challenge team, for example, earlier pursued the same search for soul. Their efforts led to a question that defined them more than any other, it was a question they

Magic can occur in our halls and within our sites, and this magic implores us to have a faith in that which cannot be measured, nor should be. Trust the silence. Trust the white space in which deep and enduring connections are being made in front of our very eyes. Trust the settings and ambiance we offer our guests. Trust and wait, and while waiting, look at what some great writers have said. We can measure many things, and we increasingly do, but our utmost respect must go towards that which defies measure. asked of themselves each time there was a potential distraction from their mission. Think about it. (Will it make the boat go faster?)