Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) are tantalizing prospects for museums. These technologies offer museums a chance to engage visitors differently, while at the same time appearing cutting-edge.
In early September, the American Alliance of Museums and the Knight Foundation fostered a conversation about immersion. Museum professionals along with practitioners discussed AR, VR, and Immersion. Their conversations touched on some of the tensions that museum professionals feel about this new technology.
Cost was foremost amongst people’s concerns. Museums consistently feel the pinch of tight budgets. New technology can be a chance to gain additional funding, through grants. These grants might mean that the project costs are separate from the operating budget, but the organization can still be taxed. New projects pull capacity from existing projects.
Staff also feared the motivations and effects of implementing such projects. Many organizations might jump into “shiny new” projects without shoring up their internal capacity and infrastructure. Managers often lack the knowledge to make good decisions about digital. As a result, projects can fail even before they are launched.
These challenges are valid. AR and VR remain newer technology. Their impact on the museum-goers remains somewhat uncertain. Without clear impact studies, implementation costs can be hard to justify. The risks seem enormous.
However, the gains are greater. Immersion offers visitors new ways to engage. Both technology and non-technology immersion are becoming an important form of engagement throughout society. Museums risk more by not considering AR, VR, and immersion. The tools might not be right for all museums, but its imperative for museum professionals to understand immersive tools well enough to make informed decisions for their constituencies.
Ideally, museum professionals start by focusing on the visitor experience (VX) as a big picture. Everything within the institution should connect to their overall VX strategy. Then, they need to take stock of their internal abilities, both interpretive and technological. This step is essential but also challenging. Museums are often unable to assess holes in their capacity. Consultants can be helpful in lending an outside eye to determine the state of things. This foundation is essential before moving forward on any AR/VR project.
With the price tag in mind, museums might invest in AR/VR projects with permanency in mind. This approach is foolhardy. Instead, museums should go in planning obsolesce. Ignoring change will not make the pace of technological evolution slow. Focusing on the content can help stem some of the fear of investing in ephemeral technology. The ideas content will be evergreen even if the technology changes.
If AR or VR is the right tool for the ideas and the audience, the museum should develop processes that foster experimentation and iteration. Ideal processes should involve research, not just testing. Staff from many departments should be involved and make an impact on the project, not solely senior executives or tech staff. Early in the project the whole team should confirm the goals, outcomes, and define a common language.
AR and VR can be extraordinary or unnecessary, with the difference being the implementation. All engagement fails when it is produced thoughtlessly. Museum AR and VR projects will fail if they focus on the technology rather than the ideas. However, focusing on ideas alone is not enough. The organization has to be ready to launch such projects. Most museums require internal growth and planning to be able to develop successful AR and VR projects. But, these changes can reap huge benefits in meeting visitors in new, exciting ways.
Socio-economic diversity is often ignored when organizations endeavor to become more inclusive and accessible. But, ignoring socio-economic differences can have a lasting impact on the audience and staff demographics, as well as impede future audience growth.
In our purportedly merit-based society, we are taught to ignore markers of class, so we are not good about discussing them. Even if we might talk about race, more, marginally, we rarely discuss socio-economic diversity.
Myth of Meritocracy
Americans are raised to believe we live in a meritocracy. Most young children are told that success is within reach, usually in their educational settings and sometimes in their families. How many of us are told that anyone in America can grow up to be president?
Inculcated into the myth of meritocracy, we are often incapable of seeing the ways that class and socio-economic standing are structurally embedded within society. Merit-based advancement is our cultural Potemkin village erected by the few to trick the many. There have been times in our history where a large sector has made advancement, notably the rise of industrialization and just after World War II. In each of these periods, notable lower class people became wealthy, greenbacks being the best accouterment for a class transition. But, these socially-mobile individuals are anomalies with great marketing, not the norms. They are held up as proof of our meritocracy, rather than simply being what they are, rarities that escaped the structural challenges.
This myth of meritocracy permeates the ways that people consider poverty, class, socio-economic mobility. Firstly, merit becomes directly related to success. If earnings and success are based on merit, then low earnings and career failure are born of a lack of merit. Lower earners are seen as less deserving than high paid ones, thanks to their personal failings.
In actuality, career success is born of many factors. Class stratification gives the rich a leg up by starting higher on the success ladder: starting with greater maternal nutrition, continuing through strong primary and secondary education, and eventually in adulthood cashing in on family and school networks and connections. The race to success for the rich is a much shorter course than for the poor.
Race and Class
Race and class are inextricably linked. African-Americans and Latinx individuals are more likely to be poor in American than Asians or whites. The myth of merit leads to the spurious assumption that certain racial groups are inherently less successful. In truth, African-Americans and Latinx individuals are often starting on the very bottom the ladder of success and climbing the rungs weighted by racism. Racism, therefore, cannot be disentangled from classism.
The connection between race and class is not accidental. Legal and political systems have made success harder for certain racial groups. Legally stipulated segregation, for example, meant that people of color spent much of the twentieth-century blocked from many forms of success. People of color often had fewer rights, like even the right to citizenship after decades of legal residency or the right to marry outside their race. These few examples scratch the surface of the ways that systematic racism contributed to our current racially-stratified class structure.
Programs aimed at improving racial disparity often ignore issues of class. This omission is often about the prejudice of the planners, who might not even realize their innate, unspoken beliefs. Class blindness has real ramifications. For example, many people might say black or Latino, but they mean a person who is poor and black. When people don’t investigate these false assumptions about class and race, the programs have inherent flaws, including scope, marketing, and reach.
Class Segregation is our Norm
People live and work in socio-economically siloed spaces. Work is usually earned through academic credentialing and networking. The former requires an initial investment of money while the latter requires tapping into existing relationships, usually with others of the same background. In American, most people are educated alongside people of the same class, only to go to the same universities, get similar jobs, and explore similar leisure activities.
Work can be a point of socio-economic diversity, but this is often when an employer has people in different job functions (executive to janitorial). In those situations, the workplace might reinforce class divisions. Leisure activities are another point where classes mix, like at sporting events. However, paid leisure activities often create a separate but equal culture, with upper classes enjoying games with cocktails from the boxes while the hoi polloi chow down on dogs at the lower levels. Many of these glancing connections to different classes reinforce stereotypes. Overall, most experiences that overlap classes are too shallow or else imbued with financial baggage to result in meaningful cross-class understanding.
What does this mean for the workplace?
Employees engage with each other about work through the medium of spoken and unspoken communication, both of which are intensely class based. Think about Standard American English. This vast nation has numerous regional variations and accents, but flat-toned Standard American English is the most commonly accepted communication tool on most news media. That type of speaking might go over class, hypothetically, but in practice, improper pronunciation or grammar scream “lower-class” to most Americans. For the American employee raised in a lower class home, communicating with colleagues can be an act of self-policing and personality translation.
The unspoken class norms are even harder for people passing into a higher class. While Standard American is taught in every American school, the subtle class cues are taught by osmosis in the many social and cultural experiences that make up a person’s upbringing.
The American myth of meritocracy often glosses over the problem of learning new class norms.
In a famous scene in the movie Pretty Woman, sex worker Julia Roberts learns about utensils as a way to grease her way into the upper-class society that she finds herself. Being able to tell a fish fork from a salad fork would be the least of your worries in the long run. The ability to interact with the trappings of a class is like signifiers of being comfortable with that class. Learning to interact will not help you learn the foundational class norms.
In service-based fields, this complexity of class is even more challenging. People in decision-making roles are often of higher classes than the people being served. This class differential can add bias into and decrease the efficacy of the services being provided.
What does this mean for museums?
Museums are inextricably connected to class. Most museums are funded through donations, often large gifts from the wealthy. Collections can also be connected to wealth. Art Museums display millennia of the material culture of the wealthy. But, science and anthropology collections often come from wealthy donors. Museums connection to wealth is not solely historical. While museums hope to expand their audiences, people still see museums as a leisure activity of the wealthy.
Without dealing with class, museums will be unable to draw wider audiences. Ignoring our prejudices and assumptions about race, therefore, can have a massive impact on our staff and patrons. Later this week, we will think more concretely about the challenges of classism in the museum and cultural sector.
White supremacy is not something easily solved in our society, with millenia of problems to counteract. Yet, the scale of the problem should not be a deterrent to action. A previous post helped set up the meaning of the phrase white supremacy, but it is useful to continue to discuss the term.
Most of the actions that support inequity and the power position of white society are subtle and constant. Inaction is a form of action. For example, when museums do not discuss race, they are choosing to maintain the current order. Museums have a great opportunity to help increase equity in our society.
What types of actions are white supremacy?
This diagram can help clarify the types of issues that contribute to the culture of white supremacy. Many more actions occur daily at the lower level of the pyramid. Those actions create the foundation of society, and in many ways, form the culture upon which the more overt actions occur. While the overt actions are shocking, the covert actions are often more pernicious. Understanding these covert actions, and then need to subvert them, is the first step in transforming white supremacy. After all, as many protest signs have stated, white silence is white compliance.
What are some examples?
Communication & Signals: Sharing ideas that ignore race or imply issues about race
Most institutions have a style guide that (hopefully) ensures communication consistency. These documents are the organization’s linguistic choices codified and formalized, servings as the editor’s measuring stick for all textual output. Organizations often focus on certain elements of the style guide, like brand issues, but ignore cultural competency issues.
For example, many organizations continue to use the word “slave” over “enslaved person.” Any long-time label writer can attest to the horror of wasted words. But, at organizational level, this choice places the need to maintain word count over expressing a nuanced understanding of the humanity and horror of the state of enslaving people.
Solution: Work with bias trainers to refine your style guide.
Writing about collections is enormously challenging. Writers are working with limited space and unlimited possibilities; visitors are completely variable in their desires and needs. Every exhibition is mounted as a good faith effort to balance the organization’s need and the visitors. Yet, very often, exhibition planners (curators, educators, designers, etc.) do not consider cultural competency issues, like race, when working through their installations. When space is at a premium, intellectually and physically, interpretation often decides to focus on the issues that can be tackled easily. Avoiding issues like race, colonialism, etc. only serves to support the status quo.
Solution: Lead conversations during interpretation planning to discuss the ramifications of decisions.
Marketing photographs are usually chosen to project the ideal audience demographic, a visualization of the diversity the organization seeks. This racial diversity is often unfulfilled dream. Visitors attending the organization, expecting a certain audience demographic, find themselves amongst a different audience entirely. Using images that misrepresent the audience is dishonest. They set up expectations for the incoming visitors. If the organization is not actually prepared to make those visitors comfortable, for example if security and front-line staff have not had extensive cultural competency training, visitors will suffer.
Solutions: Be purposeful in your imagery choices, and ensure your staff is prepared for changes to your audience demographics
Gallery sequencing might feel easy, following a canonical path. Art museums might choose to set things up according to the chronological march of time. Natural history museums might choose to split organic and inorganic specimens. But, every choice is imbued with cultural norms, often dripping with white supremacy. Natural history museums, for example, often hold collections of native American art, though don’t hold corresponding collections from other American cultures. The placement of these galleries can project uncomfortable and inappropriate meaning. Placing native American collections near collections about the evolution of man, for example, can imply Native Americans are less “evolved.” Certainly, curators might not believe this, however the space juxtapositions can still imply this to visitors.
Solution: This problem can be incredibly hard to solve. Gallery cannot easily be moved without massive financial ramifications. If you are in the position to do a resequencing, spend time talking through the choices, ideally with a bias consultant. However, if not, then find ways to communicate challenges with your visitors. Meet any possible misunderstanding head on with your interpretation.
Decision-making: The business of running museums can maintain the current status quo
Tokenism: Hiring practices in museums can certainly be a full blog post. But, in short, the credentialing-based hiring and unspoken requirement of unpaid internships ensures that staff positions are drawing from a small privileged group of applicants. Museums often expand their applicant expectations, say for community engagement positions. In other words, people of color are being relegated to a few jobs associated with working with people of color. Basically, these hiring practices bring a few individuals into the existing culture, all but maintaining the current order.
Solution: Again, this could be the subject of a blog post. But, internally, the issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and access need to be considered thoroughly and thoughtfully. Hiring in staff without internal change only exacerbates the problem.
Community Engagement: Engagement programs can be incredibly transformative for organizations, but only if they allow for the transformation. When such programs are siloed, their impact on the organization is localized. In other words, community engagement often supports the status quo, creating a culture of special interest (segregated) programming that runs in parallel with the general programming. For community engagement to truly transform white supremacy in an organization, it has to become central to all work and the job of everyone.
Solution: Leadership needs to make transforming the audience everyone’s job, then they need to increase internal capacity across the board to do so.
Thanks to Hrag of Hyperallergenic on his post about Newark Museum’s labels that got me thinking about this topic. The Newark Museum is obviously doing something right, as they have made the decision to move away from anonymous.
White supremacy is a phrase that can startle people. For many people, the phrase connotes men in white sheets marching under cover of night fighting anonymously for a minority vision of our society. These white extremists certainly fall within the definition of white supremacy, but they are not the defining aspect of the concept.
What is white supremacy?
White supremacy is a system that maintains the structure with the white culture at the top of society. For many people, this actuality of white supremacy is challenging. There is the cognitive dissonance between their belief that white supremacy is a minority opinion counter to our pluralistic society. Being confronted with the idea that wholly contradicts their original opinion can be jarring. But, being forced to see themselves mentally aligned with such vilified members of our society can seem repugnant and repellent. Most members of our society attempt to perform “anti-racism,” i.e., they act in ways that appear inclusive. So, to learn that their actions and the society they live in is in line with the KKK, well, that can feel either earth-shaking or completely false. Either way, without coming to terms with the reality of white supremacy, people cannot work toward racial equity.
Our cultural structures are so imbued with white supremacy as to have become nearly invisible. For example, the English language has become the norm globally. Even nations that had never succumbed to the English empire, advertisements run taglines for products in English. Coca-Cola anyone? American capitalism is equally pervasive. I would be hard-pressed to imagine a single adult in the world who is without some knowledge of an American product, like a brand, actor, or idea. Western society has become our global given.
What do these economic and cultural givens have to do with white supremacy?
First, English is a language, perhaps the language, of white colonialism, the greatest propagator of white supremacy our society has ever known. Even as the economy of colonialism has largely waned, the language maintains many of those ties. Many smaller languages have given way to the power of English, the language of commerce and success. But, with a new language comes a new idea. The English language serves to support the dispersal of cultural norms as well. Any bilingual person knows that translation is an approximation, at best. And, English has forced many cultural ideas into other societies, leaving much of the pre-English ideas lost in translation.
Economics also has its part in white supremacy. The means of production since the Industrial Revolution has been held by the few, and those few have been white. Even as society has slowly transformed with more non-white people gaining ground economically, largely the system has been constructed to maintain this order. This economic reality can be incredibly jarring for people. Often, the iconic poor white miner is levied as a rhetorical brick against this reading of white supremacy. After all, aren’t there black people with Harvard degrees eating caviar while this poor white miner remains jobless in Appalachia? Of course, both people described certainly exist. But, those individuals do nothing to undo the economics of white supremacy, and in fact, they both serve to support the theory. An Ivy-league educated American black person remains a minority.
Given that most black Americans can trace their history in this nation back farther the many White Americans, the lower rates of matriculation of black Americans at Ivy League institutions should be shocking. Think about this. Black people have been in American for hundreds of years, speaking this language, living in this culture, and yet, someone whose grandparents spoke no English has more likelihood, statistically, of matriculating to an Ivy League school. So, what’s the variable? Race. We live in a society where if you are white, you are unmarked. Therefore, you can live within the scrutiny of color. Now, you might be given a silver spoon and the corner office, but white people are not hamstrung by their race. So, black American is succeeding despite the mark of their skin color, and often as one of very few to follow that path. In the story of the black Harvard grad, there are two hallmarks of white supremacy. The road of being a solo person of color in a competitive field is exhausting and intense. Career and academic isolationism, due to few people of color reaching high levels, maintain the current order. But, even more telling, the black Harvard grad is often seen as a product of affirmative action, as if their merit was not equal to white students. The underlying belief is that the playing field was not equal. Certainly, the playing field was not equal. White people have the ability to move within the academic and economic society without the baggage of race. That mobility is an enormous boon, and likely one of the greatest mechanisms that propagate white supremacy.
This mobility is also underlying the issues of the white miner. That people would see a poor white person as proof that white supremacy exists is the ultimate marker of white supremacy. The argument is that white supremacy can’t exist if there are white people who are poor. The corollary to that argument would be that all white people must be above all people of color. In other words, that argument is complete within the norms of white supremacy, where whiteness is an essential state of being. If whiteness was the issue there, the poor miner could be any color, and the argument would be about the shrinking periphery in our society. But, instead, his poverty is seen as surprising because he is white, i.e., of the privileged state in our society.
What do this poor miner and black Harvard grad have to do with museums?
Whiteness is inextricably linked to the work of museums. Museums are part of the Western (white) society. Often collections are born of the very colonial state that propagated white supremacy. Art museums certainly hold collections born of colonialism, such as Asian and African collections. But, other museums also profited from colonialism. Fossils from all around the world call Western nations home, for example. Even the very idea of collecting and cataloging is a Western one. Denying this history does not negate it, but instead allows this history to subvert any changes we attempt to put in place. After all, we know that the monster under the bed has more power when unseen and threatening; once faced, its hold dissipates quickly.
However, language and translation might be some of the most useful elements of white supremacy that permeates museums. Museums attempt to share ideas with patrons to help them connect to collections (and share collections to connect patrons to ideas). In other words, museums are basically communicators. This places museums in a power position. They have the power to chose what is communicated and how. Often, museums communicate in ways that support the current order, and therefore they support white supremacy.
Museum staff remains largely white, so the nuance of language and the bigger cultural issues of white supremacy often feel academic, which gets us back to our miner and Harvard grad. The class is certainly an issue in museums, but generally, many more white people of lower classes have been able to pass into the upper levels of museum administration than people of color. Diversity and inclusion efforts have brought in more people of color, but the numbers are low. People of color, therefore, become isolated and often disenchanted.
So, what can museums do?
There are many ways, small and large, that museums can deal with white supremacy in their work. First, though, museum professionals need to face up to the fact that white supremacy is a lot more than guys in sheets and that they are part of the problem. Museum professionals need to think about what white supremacy means within society and within their work. Without coming to terms with the fact that white supremacy is a powerful state that has suffused our society, they have no hope of moving towards a racially equitable state.
On Thursday, we will have some concrete examples of white supremacy in museum work.
Note: These are my notes from my MuseumNext London 2018. I presented with Paul Bowers, so many of these come out of our shared conversations. I only included my parts of the talk in this write-up.
Museum workers are doing amazing work. Millions of objects are in care for posterity. Billions of visitors experience galleries annually. Billions of dollars are added to the global economy thanks to museums. Along with these quantitative outcomes, museum workers are making an enormous change in the field and in the lives of visitors.
The onus of all this work can be exhausting to employees not to say the least because museums workers often need to do all this good work all the while feeling like there are doing battle in their offices. Yet, this feeling of fighting the systems at work is something no worker needs. Finding ways to work well within work systems can help all workers free up mental space to do the real mission-driven work they want to do.
Has Museum Work Changed?
The museum-goer of the 19th century might be stunned if they were transmitted to the present-day museum. As leisure has changed, museums have also changed. Installation practice has certainly changed. Technology has transformed all aspects of the museum experience. But, in its essence, museum work is about connecting people to ideas and objects. So, while the products of museum labor have changed over time, the central tenets of museum work remains fairly consistent, partly because the running of the museums has not changed all that much. Museum remains bureaucratic, hierarchical systems that place a high value on expertise.
How do you hack the bureaucracy?
Paul and I think of this as a sort of emotional Tai Chi. We think of work relationships and actions as a sort of pushing hands, where you and your colleagues are working with (not against each other). Work is easier when energy is shared and harness, rather than wasted on working against each other. Now, this is easy to say but can feel like a tall order. Here are some tips to help you be able to work with people rather than against the bureaucratic orders.
Being Honest about Yourself
Think about words like bureaucracy, change, process, and strategy. What is your first idea when you hear those words? There is no wrong answer. Checking your own ideas is essential, though. You cannot act effectively if you don’t know where you stand now.
You might have a negative feeling about the idea of bureaucracy, but it is not inherently bad. In fact, those aspects of bureaucracy that are might feel bad(the slowness of approvals or the lack of power) can also be seen as the positive aspects. No system is bad or good. It is the way people work within the system that colors the way that people think of that system. Bureaucracy is a tool and it’s about communicating with different people.
The other caveat about knowing yourself is to remain thoughtful about how people react to you. Many people might feel like change agents and this is stressful. But the other roles are also stressful. Think of it this way. Some of us are big voices. Some of us live at 100 mph. Others live in quiet ways. Some people live at a stroll. All those people have to work together. The variety of humanity is at the crux of our infinite innovation but also the source of much of our emotional exhaustion. Knowing how people relate to you is decrease the emotional exhaustion you feel (and cause) in interacting with others.
2. Don’t hate on the system. Retrofit the System.
Let’s think of silos. Silos are just tall buildings that hold grain. They are a wonderful tool for holding and saving corn. They work so well that most American farms have one.
In the workplace, silos are have become a metaphor for calcified, stagnant, and/or pooled workforces. But, the silo is not inherently bad. (Think of how it keeps all that corn safe.) In work, silos can group like functional areas, giving a group of people an affinity support group. What is worse, however, is when allowing silos to become sealed. If those people in the department are excluded from cross-fertilization with other teams, then work becomes stagnated. How do you keep from letting worker rot in silos? Foster ways for people to work between silos; think of these as personal ladders. Cross-functional work teams, for example, build work bond between teams. For more on this topic, I have a long blog post.
3. Do You, because You Do You Best.
This Chinese image sets the fish and the rock against each other. You can think about what makes either of these adversaries more likely to win the battle. Rocks are strong, stable, and hard. Fish are agile, mobile, and part of a collective (not to mention sentient). But, overall both are worthy adversaries.
Fish are just fish. They likely don’t have existential about the nature of swimming or being in schools. They swim, eat, and swim some more. Humans have some many ways to complicate our existence. We often lose sight of our strengths and pretend to be someone else. But, think of if you really focused on working from your strengths, like being the swimmingest fish, how much better you would feel at work.
This rock and fish image is a good visual mnemonic for a meeting. Everyone has a strength. When you are in a meeting, you might feel like you are the fish, but remember you are just as worth a foe as the rocks in that room. Try to find ways to work from your strength, but also know that everyone has their own strength. Slow moving people can easily be thought of as considered thinkers.
4. Reach, Reach and Repeat
Flexibility is one of the most important skills of the contemporary worker, and yet it is one that we rarely train employees to learn. You might be curious that I discuss flexibility as a skill. Sometimes people discuss mental flexibility as an innate quality rather than a learned one. When you reframe your notions about flexibility, you are practicing flexibility.
Just like stretching, learning to be more flexible is about regular practice. Put yourself into positions where you feel uncomfortable. Do things in ways that you usually don’t. Try out communicating in a way that is different than you usually enjoy. Be thoughtful about the ways that you interact, and notice how those new methods feel. Basically, explore other ways to interact with your colleagues and other methods of doing your job. When you make mindful choices to explore other ways of things, you expand your status quo and you become more resilient.
5. More Time on You and Less on Them
Humans have survived for millennia thanks to their ability to read each other quickly. On unsafe roads in the Dark Ages, for example, one’s life depended on being able to read fellow travelers — fast. But, this skill can also be problematic. Very often in interpersonal relationships, we mistake people’s reactions due to misreading their body language.
For example, all the figures in the image above are standing in different gestures. If I asked you to pick out the person who is unhappy, you might point to the guard in the corner. Now, let’s say that this image was made ten minutes before his lunch hour. Is he unhappy or hungry? How will you know? The only way to know what someone is thinking is to talk to them. Without hearing what they are thinking, you are simply projecting.
Instead, take time to really understand your feelings and your reactions. We often have certain situations that make us bonkers. For example, I can’t handle when someone replies about the quality of the product with a statement about the amount of time required to do it. For me, time spent doesn’t equal quality of the product. For a long time, I projected my frustrations onto those people. But, then I realized that my issues about their workplace were actually my problem. I was not doing a good job of communicating that I valued those people’s work. I was projecting my beliefs of efficiency and labor onto them. I realized that they wanted their time-spent to be valued. So, instead of projecting my frustration, I should have been more focused on thinking about my ideas of work value and efficiency.
6. Be a Team Player and Understand Your Team
Most museum teams are a group of people from different departments working together towards a goal. Usually, we only have one person per functional area. So, your peers work together but each person does different work. As such, you might not actually know what that other person does. You need to have to trust everyone to work together and do their role. But, you also need to support all of the members of the team, not solely the lead or the loudest person. If that project is mounted, every person who worked on it was the reason it happened. Every person deserved credit. And, most importantly everyone was essential to that project’s success. Work is a team sport. When we allow credit and success to seem like an individual activity, we devalue everyone’s labor and diminish our future work.
This graphic illustrates the relationship between the museum and visitors content desires. Notice there is an overlap as well as places where the two groups diverge.
Getting the right amount of content is challenging. Firstly, content costs money and time. There is the writer, the researcher, and the editor–those people are all over-worked and underpaid. Content levels are an essential aspect of the visitor experience. When there is too little content, visitors will feel like they aren’t getting their money’s worth. Too much content can overwhelm and turn-off visitors.
In addition, different audience segments have different needs. General visitors have much lower content needs than Power visitors. Curators will likely want to share more content than even the most intense power visitor. Finally, there will be content needs that visitors will want that museums will not be able to accommodate easily; there will always be visitor questions, for example, for which the museum won’t have the answer.
The ideal interpretive approach is about blending staff ideas with visitor insights. First and foremost, the team should consider and understand what visitors want from your organization using formal evaluation. Without this information, your organization is working blind.
With that research in hand, the team needs to spend some time working together dealing with big issues. A previous colleague used to call these types of meetings the come to Jesus meetings. While I don’t have that same cultural reference, I would say that these are the courtship meetings. These meetings help you learn about each other and your ideas about your collections. The questions in the graphic solicit anecdotal ideas about visitors as well as input about institutional culture/mores. Organizations often ignore staff input about visitors as being less important than formal visitor research. This move is wasteful. As long as the anecdotal input is balanced with research, this staff insight should not be disregarded. Staff members of all types are experts in visitors; don’t discount this rich source for information.
Ideally, internal staff input, such as the answers to these questions, are balanced with visitor research to develop the sweet spot organization. Each organization will have a different sweet spot. In the end, your team can develop a document that articulates the following:
Helping visitors engage in collections is a primary concern for museums. Museum professionals often partner with various vendors, consultants, and partners to do this work, for example commissioning firms to develop interactives for exhibitions. Mounting these installations can be exhausting and rife with interpersonal challenges. Visitors walking into spaces, ideally, have no idea how contentious and challenging mounting installations can be, thankfully. Even if the customer experience appears alright, the staff experience should not suffer to mount such installations.
What causes interpersonal challenges in mounting spaces and installations?
I have always loved the phrase lock-step and turn-key. Both phrases scream efficiency, ease, simplicity, and replicability. None of these adjectives would be useful in describing the mounting of a collection space. Collections managers and database administrators work had to make systematize collection data. But short of digital systems, most things about collections are complexity and nuance. Objects come to museums for their rarity and complications. Installations are meant to help people with little background knowledge fall into love (like) with an object. Collectively, the work of the people mounting an installation/ exhibition is to bewitch/ bemuse the public.
Getting visitors from 0-60 about collections is a tall order and its one about which every person (either on staff or on contract) feels passionate. Emotions can run high, and the stakes can feel enormous. People on the teams come with different expertise; each person seems the DMZ and faultlines in the process differently and through the lens of their own professional role. For example, while a curator might understand the nuance between using certain phrases (say artwork vs artifact), others on the team see these as unimportant arguments. Everyone on the team is often placed in the position of arguing their corner, and everyone can come out of the process feeling bruised.
How can these challenges be mitigated?
Everyone on the team is hoping to get an interpretation for installations that is interesting and easy to use without compromising the museum’s reputation. This sweet-spot is a bit of a holy grail. But, diminishing inter-personal challenges and developing better systems is essential to improving interpretation. Sound systems result in superior products, and broken systems result in subpar products. Think of how a broken conveyor belt will not be able to create wonderful chocolates.
The first step in developing a good working process is to agree that ideal interpretation and installations need to be easy to access, understandable, and grounded in research. Like a three-headed dog, these three elements have to work in concert to go forward. Often museums allow their legacy to serve an anchor preventing action towards innovation and excellence. Museums can also be fooled by the newest fads to skew too far away from their core competencies.
After agreeing to collective and balanced actions, teams need to determine more practical issues, such as work plans, sign-offs, and tone. Underlying these practical issues the teams need to decide and articulate the no-go zones for their institution. Every institution has issues that cannot be discussed easily. Donor issues and collection histories often top these lists. In working with teams, I like to put these issues on paper. This process can feel uncomfortable. But, these lists are also freeing, in that one person on the team is not required to be the guardian of these verboten topics.
Finally, any good plan needs some follow through. Often, the best-laid intentions are destroyed because there is no big stick. Museum staff managers are rarely given training on deescalating emotional conflict; a fear of conflict is epidemic in many museum senior staff members. With so much work and so little time & money, who can fault these managers. The result is a culture of conflict-avoiding people finding ways to step around and then crashing into challenging personalities. When I have worked on successful installation and interpretative teams, there is a person who is judge, jury, room mother, and traffic controller. (Ideally, the team has been set up so that everyone is on their best behavior and everyone understands they are in this together FOR the visitor, so challenges don’t bubble up.)
Interpretative work is basically like all human to human communication, prone to emotions and challenges. In installation work, the bigger challenge might be that the people starting the conversations about the collections (the staff) are not actually present with the receivers (the visitors). The installations, from signs to interactives, need to speak to visitors on their own. When the systems create these installations are smooth, the conversations can go singingly.
On Thursday, we will talk about questions teams can ask themselves to hit the ideal sweet spot for interpretation.
I had the pleasure of doing the keynote talk for the Pennsylvania Museums Association conference in April, 2018. Below is a summary of my remarks.
We all need to take care of ourselves
As managers, you particularly need to take care of yourself
You also need to advocate for your staff and to help them find space
Self-care is an umbrella term for the types of activities that people use to maintain the necessary stability required to accomplish all the hard work of life. While self-care varies by person, it is necessary for every individual. Everyone needs to have moments when they are focused on themselves.
Non-profit work can be exhausting. Employees work long hours for little money. Burnout is high. Management jobs are often only garnered by leaving your organization (and potentially your city). People do this work because they believe in the mission. Organizations win, as they get dedicated employees for a bargain-rate. The employees are so dedicated, partly because their job has been conflated with their identity.
Self-care can feel hard to jam into a brimming schedule. But, self-care can fit into a negligible moment. One calming breath won’t destroy your schedule but will help you get through the next hard experience.
There are many different ways to try out self-care. For example, I wrote a few articles about creative mindfulness, basically meditative drawing. I paired these articles with posts about productivity. After all, if you are exhausted, you can’t even begin to think about self-care.
Whatever form your self-care takes, the key is transforming your life in simple ways that afford more mental space. Physical space can often be tied to mental space. A streamlined work surface makes finding tools easier and therefore accomplishing tasks easier, and finally affords employees more time for themselves.
Managing and Self-Care:
Self-determined goals are often meaningful. And, self-care cannot be foisted on people. When an organization requires that their staff exercises in order to decrease insurance rates, the HR office usually gets to field plenty of grumbles and complaints. Managers, therefore, should avoid pushing self-care on their staff.
Instead, managers need to find substantive ways to support the staff in their self-care. First, they need to model self-care. I say this as someone who came late to self-care. I needed to become an expert in burnout to become an evangelist of self-care. Managers need to be honest about their own struggles with burnout and share their strategies to counteract these feelings. Sharing challenges is not a sign of weakness. A good leader is a human who is worth following, flaws and all; a boss is a person who you have to work for.
Managers are responsible for the care and feeding of departments. With the never-ending demands of growth and excellence, managers often place their energy on the feeding elements of running their departments. But, care is an equally important element in an expansion. Departments grown by a burned-out staff can be shaky and subpar. Therefore, it is incumbent on managers to ensure that staff has the opportunity and structures to implement their self-care strategies. Part of this is encouraging downtime and relaxing experiences during the workday. While Americans are notorious for their long hours, Swedish workplaces understand the need for downtime. Coffee hour, or fika, is a time-honored tradition in most Swedish office.
Keeping people in the non-profit workforce is hard, and plenty of younger people are willing to fill open positions. Museums are losing trained middle-level staff. Putting the staff’s sanity about the job is one of the best ways for nonprofits of all kinds, including museums, to ensure a strong future.
Over the last few years, there have been some heated debates behind the scenes of museum education offices about the ways that visitors should be engaged. Many directors have changed the department moniker from education to learning or interpretation. This change could be seen as a transformation from older methodologies to more sophisticated forms of engagement. (I have my reservations, though that is for another time).
Underlying these changes are some incredibly important cultural transformations. While in the dawn of museums experts spoke at visitors who received ideas, now visitors expect a responsive connection. Museums, like all service fields, have started to develop materials for the visitor, rather than just hoping the visitor likes the materials that are being developed. This move towards visitor-centered museums has been met with some uncertainty.
The most common complaint, often launched by directors or curators, is that museums shouldn’t “dumb it down” as they will lose their core audience. This criticism has some validity. Museums have a core audience of donors and scholars who expect a certain level of language. However, there are some holes in the reasoning that dumbing things down is bad. Firstly, erudite language express simplistic ideas and complexity can be shown simply. Language is often used in museums to imply sophistication and divide people by reading level. This type of exclusionary language occurs as interpretation writers and curators are not able to step outside their own written norms. Their expertise and reading experience makes them poor judges of what is broadly understood. A very smart, Ph.D physicist might not understand un”dumbed down” labels on Tibetan esoteric iconography. Another problem is that “dumbing it down” implies that starting at that intro level makes you dumb. Intelligence has nothing to do with information retention, and conflating the two is a dumb move. Finally, the core audience is often seen differently by various aspects of the museum. Curators often see their peers or their donors as the end-user of labels; these are the people they engage with most commonly. Educators and interpreters often imagine a generalist as the most common audience for the labels; these are the people they engage most often. Curators, educators, and interpreters are all right. Museums often have multiple core audiences.
To return to the graphic, the solution to the challenges of ensuring visitor-centered interpretation can be to go back to the object. Rather than placing the museum and the object on one side of a see-saw, think of the object as being in the center (the fulcrum). The ideal balance for any object is an interpretation plan that takes into account the museum’s needs and the visitor’s desire. The object is what keeps everything in balance.
So many arguments over interpretation focus on the level of the language or the tone of the program–they are ancillary to the object. Instead, try to start with the object–what is the central ideas that people should know and want to know about the object? Then think about the ways you will communicate these issues. Remember you have many tools. Some will be ideal for the most erudite and some will be ideal for the least (And, remember this isn’t dumbing down but instead introducing people.)