The Freedom Center’s Richard Cooper on the Future of Museums and the Role Technology Will Play

This interview is part of our Thought Leader” series, where we get inside the heads of the best and brightest in the museum & technology world.

Richard Cooper

Manager of Interpretive Services

Richard C. Cooper is the Manager of Interpretive Services at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center where he oversees the development and presentation of the overall interpretive, educational strategies used with the general public in the exhibit galleries to include guided tours, demonstrations, self-guided activities, and first & third-person interpretation. He also actively works with the Exhibits and Collections departments to develop the interpretation of traveling exhibitions. Rich came to the Freedom Center in the capacity of Interpretive Services Coordinator where he was in charge of maintaining the day-to-day operations of the Interpretive Services program within the museum’s 158,000 square foot facility that opened in 2004. Rich received his B.A. in American History from the University of Cincinnati.  He is currently attending Northern Kentucky University to obtain a Masters Degree in Public History.

TourSphere: What was a stand-out museum/exhibit that caught your interest this year?

Rich: Wow…There so many outstanding museums out there today that I have visited this year.  But, if I have to pick…I will settle for two – the Indiana Historical Society in Indianapolis, Indiana and the City Museum in St. Louis, Missouri.  The Indiana Historical Society has become outstanding at bringing history to life in a whole new way in their experiences called You Are There.  In these experiences they recreate historical pictures from Indiana’s past and allow for visitors to step into those scenes.  The City Museum is probably one of the most exciting museums I have ever visited.  Both young and old have the chance to crawl through amazing caves, and see creative pieces of recycled/repurposed architectural and industrial objects within their collection.  Check out this Museum Minute post to see a blog written by a colleague of mine, Jamie Glavic (@MuseumMinute) and videos I created from inside the City Museum.

TourSphere: What was the coolest use of technology you saw in a museum recently?

Rich: I would have to say MOMA Unadulterated at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  They created a wonderful tour where children actually interpret art through their eyes.  In the field of interpretation, we are always searching and creating new ways for visitors to become participants in the story.  This new tour having children interpret the art through their eyes takes this idea of visitor participation to a whole new level for the field.

TourSphere: Did your museum do something this year(or have something coming up soon) that you are especially proud of/ excited about?

Rich: This summer the Freedom Center opened a terrific changing exhibition called Music of Change: Hymns, Blues, & Rock.  The exhibition has challenged and inspired visitors to recognize the power of music and how it is used in their own lives to express camaraderie in connection with social movements and attitudes.  The exhibition was created by the Freedom Center Curator, Dina Bailey (@NURFCDina) and graduate students at Northern Kentucky University.  The exhibition is open to the public until September 22, 2012.  The Freedom Center mobile tour app available via web app and in the Apple App store has a selection of music that helps to bring Music of Change to life for visitors as they travel through the exhibition.

TourSphere: Is there an app or a technology that has changed the way you do things or made your job easier this year?

Rich: ….Twitter.  I have to admit, that I am fairly new to Twitter.  But it is incredible.  It has enabled me to expand the interpretation of the Freedom Center.  It has also allowed for me to interact with other professionals in weekly conversations around numerous topic in the museum and education fields.  I have made it a personal goal to tweet about a major topic that relates to the mission of the Freedom Center on a daily basis.

TourSphere: Apple or Android (or other)?

Rich: I am absolutely an Apple person.  I have everything from an iMac, iPhone, iPad, to a MacBook Pro in my collection of electronics.  I think Apple has done a wonderful job of linking all their devices through iCloud.  It makes it easier to start a project on one device and quickly pick it up on another device and continue the project where you left off.  However, I still love my basic Kindle too.

TourSphere: If you had to sum up what you think the theme for museums in 2012 will be in one word, what would your prediction be?

Rich: I would have to go with “Participatory.”  I think the field is continuing to find new ways for visitors both inside and beyond the walls of institutions to fully participant with our museums.  You can see this throughout the field as more museums are developing apps, learning how to utilize social media, allowing for visitors and communities to create exhibits, employing radical trust, and broadening our reach to include more diversity in the themes we cover.   Creating these types of experiences will allow for more audiences both young and old from diverse backgrounds to feel truly a part of our great museums.

TourSphere: What do you see as the biggest challenge for museums in the coming years?

Rich: Great Question.  I would say that financial stability will remain a major topic throughout the field.  I think this will also lead to more museums talking about “mergers.”  The Freedom Center and the Cincinnati Museum Center just announced the merger of our two great institutions to help strengthen the financial stability of both institutions.  This model could be used by other museums across the nation as budgets, and funding continue to tighten over the next couple of years.

TourSphere: Is there something you are passionate about in the museum world that you would like to wax philosophical about or rant about? 

Rich: The only thing I might rant about is that I highly encourage everyone to remember that interpretation is the key.  Without good interpretation, a project will not be as successful as it could be.  You could have the coolest piece of new technology, but after a while, without good interpretation, the project will not reach its potential.  Technology is just an avenue to help bring the interpretation to life.

I highly encourage everyone to check out the new AASLH Educators & Interpreters Blog at and the Museum Minute Blog at I contribute to both blogs.

Rich, thanks for sharing your thoughts and insights!  You continue to challenge and inspire us!

Keep up with Rich here: 

Twitter: @NURFCRich

Check out the NURFC App – (web app) or in the Apple Store Android Marketplace.

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