15 Jan

Colonialism is Dead, Long Live Colonialism

I am a colonial artifact, my very existence a result of the conjoining of British greed and Indian aspiration.

Anyone reading this in the US or Canada also qualifies as a colonial product, certainly. But colonialism, like a franchise brand, manifest differently across the globe. American and Canadian peoples can be seen as colonial products*. In sports scores, the asterisks denote egregious circumstances, like corked bats or coked batters. In colonialism, some nations enjoyed the egregious benefits of self-rule as well as the sheer acceptance of the people’s humanity. While the US and Canada, twin-nations separated at birth and showing differing levels of decrepitude, were once colonies of the British crown, their national state is untainted by colonialism. (One might even see these nations as the few, the proud to profit from their colonial past).

Colonialism for the vast majority of the world is not an asterisk to their history, but the pivotal moment when existence was transformed, and not for the better. Colonialism meant increased trains, roads, and schools, but those were not selfless gifts but instead investments in the colonial machine. Schools trained workers in Colonial enterprises. Roads and trains helped colonial powers survey “their” land and efficiently remove goods for sale. Colonialism was a business proposition built on the backs of humans.

The strict sense of colonialism waned in the late 20th century. The colonial system, with its concomitant racist systems, still exist. India is not a subject of the crown, but the UK still holds great sway. The US no longer owns the Philippines, but a powerful relationship still exists. Economic colonialism, in other words, maintains similar power structures despite the purported end to colonialism.

The five centuries of European control of the means of production and manipulations of markets have lasting effects on every country left behind. The global economy is like equality vs. equity illustration. Most nations enjoy self-rule, but only a few came to this state without generations of the intellectual knee-buckling and the outright thievery of colonialism. Britain never suffered hoards of people removing their mineral and gem resources. France never found themselves forced to grow commodity crops for another market altogether. Most nations are now “equal” but start at a massive disadvantage.

The privilege of colonialism might feel far away. Just as some white Americans eschew charges of racism by stating my family didn’t own slaves, many people in colonizer nations could say my family wasn’t related to Queen Victoria. Both claims are hooey. The privilege of colonialism is not hereditary, exactly. The colonial system was based on race, with power concentrated in whites. It is no surprise that the US and Canada, nations built by white settlers on the bones of Native American cultures and peoples, enjoyed self-rule. Small-pox and winking deals ensured these nations were basically as white as the lands of the colonizers.

Aspiration and opportunity have driven millions of people from their ancestral homes to the colonizer nations, a sort of step-home. While the United Kingdom remains largely white, 13% of the nation are people of color. The sun never set on the British Empire, and now people from all those sunny locales reside in the UK. Where once the empire was vast, now the UK sees a vast breadth in their populace. The privilege of colonialism also transferred, in some ways, to people of color living in colonizer nations. A UK-born Bangladeshi has the privilege (for a little while) of being able to work in the EU, of British education systems, of British infrastructure. Any person of color living in a colonizer nation or the colonial* nations knows this privilege is hard-won. The repopulating of colonial subjects in the lands of the colonizers set off anger, distrust, uncertainty, and violence. There was a sort of double standard. Whites had previously had the mobility, as well as the means of self-determination. People of color moving into the colonizer nations upset this system.

Each person of color feels colonialism in myriad ways. Asians, born in America, are almost always seen as foreign. Such experiences may seem small, but they point to the perniciousness of colonialism. If you are not a native American/ First Peoples, you are a settler. If you are an American of color, your skin is seen as a marker of otherness, a palimpsest of past wrongs. If you are white, your skin is a marker of “being from here,” a patently false feeling. White people are no more American than I, but their state is rarely contested.

Colonialism might all seem like ancient history. After all, America threw off screwy King George a couple hundred years ago. Much of Asia gained self-rule in the 20th century. But pretending colonialism is a past-tense state is incredibly problematic. It allows us to gloss past the issues that colonialism continues to cause in everyday life. European nations and the US are whining about the influx of refugees and migrants. This migration of peoples is directly related to colonialism. Lives are lost when we ignore the cultural cracks colonialism created.

Our whole world view is thanks to colonialism, from the primacy of the northern hemisphere to the default state of the English language. Much of the problems in contemporary society will not disappear without facing and addressing the way that colonial veins the fiber of our global culture.

26 Nov

Starting your DEAI path

Recently, I was asked how to start on the path to understanding the issues of Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion. These are complex issues that take years to grapple with, and even then, you may never truly understand them. Since I have been asked this question often, I wanted to put down some big-picture ideas.

There are many steps you can take. But first, there are some intellectual changes you should make to place yourself in a good position to make a change:

Think differently:

It’s not me, it’s you: Slavery is one of the most inhumane aspects of human history. A portion of our current American population is on this continent because they are the descendants of slaves. Much of the current white population came to the United States after the Civil War; the population nearly doubled in the second half of the 19th century. These facts set up some complicated issues. White Americans might find themselves thinking (or saying), but my family didn’t own slaves. As an Asian-American whose family came on TWA in the sixties and seventies, I could say pretty categorically that my family didn’t own slaves. But, I wouldn’t. Why? Because arguments about actual ownership are not the point. In the US, the descendants of slaves have faced incredible prejudice and economic hardship from the moment they left the African continent. People who are white have not faced those same hardships, even if say, your Catholic ancestors faced certain prejudices. If you ancestor’s children weren’t sold as possessions, it wasn’t as bad for your people as the slaves. Saying that your family didn’t own slaves is immaterial. There are people in this country who ancestors were own like furniture, and this country is inextricably tied to that terrible fact. What your ancestors didn’t do isn’t the point. The point is what you are doing now.

White guilt isn’t the Trip we need: White privilege is a truth in society. Ceding your privilege by centering others is the best way to assuage your guilt about the privileges you were born with. But, many people with white guilt act in ways that don’t make our racially-problematic society. Guilt is often the reason white people might feel uncomfortable speaking about race or couch their conversations in euphemisms. Guilt might make white people choose to center their feelings about race rather than focusing on the actual injustices of racism. Guilt should not be a way to continue the current oppression; it should be an impetus for change.

Don’t look to Black Saviors; This fight is for whites: The people in power generally are the ones with the most power to change society. People of color have been doing this work for a long time. But, they can only make change up to a point. White people need to think of themselves as change-agents.

Intersectional; not siloed: Diversity, equity, access, and inclusion is not about adding a few people from one minority into the majority. Historically, African-Americans are the most marginalized in America. Often, organizations use the term “diversity” as a code for adding more African-Americans to their community. DEAI efforts have to deal with the ways that African-Americans are positioned in our society (and the breakdown of structural racism in our institutions.) But, DEAI is by definition broader than one racial group. People are marginalized in our society for their race, gender, ethnicity, ability, neurodivergence, nationality, and class. True DEAI efforts need to think of the way organizations deal with all types of differences and therefore require the transformation of processes.

Diversity isn’t like seasoning old dishes; It’s about new meals: Diversity isn’t about adding in a few new folks. DEAI initiatives need to be fundamental reworkings of thought and processes. Adding a couple “gay people” or “black people” isn’t the way to make these changes. You need to question everything that occurs starting with the underlying thoughts about who, what, and whys of your organization.

 

Act Differently:

Listen to people marginalized people, but don’t burden them with your questions: We are taught to ask questions in school. So, asking questions seems like a good way to test your understanding of issues. But, remember life is accumulative. So, your question of your marginalized friend is one of the thousands they have been asked.

Center Others: Attention is not an infinite resource. Take stock of who is getting the most attention. If you were born with more privilege, your voice has mattered more for longer. Use that privilege by centering other less privileged voices. Give someone the center to this argument so that you can learn.

Study like your future depends on it, bc the equitable future does: In the end, the issues of DEAI are about our society as a whole. How can we ensure that all of us in this country have a future? Imagine we are on a life-raft together? If some of us sink, the whole raft is toast. Our country might still be afloat, but if inequity keeps some sectors of our society down, our whole country suffers. With this level of import, you can understand why information is your best way to help improve the future. Learn as much as you can. Read everything. Find voices that are different than your own. Question everything you know. The future is in your hands.

Make mistakes: I can’t tell you the number of mistakes I have made and thought the wrong thing. I still have major blinders thanks to my education and background. If you don’t admit to your biases and faults, you are doomed to maintain your bad behaviors. The only way you can improve is to make mistakes. Learn about other people, but also interact with them. Be truthful about who you are. Don’t pretend to be a different class, race, or gender. But, then, interact with other people. Communicate. Listen and take criticism well. You will speak incorrectly. And, learn from your mistakes.

 

 

21 Nov

5 Reasons to Self-Publish and a Free Zine

Self-publishing can be overwhelming and confusing, particularly if you have ever published a traditional book, or worked in an institution with a publications department. That said, there are many reasons to self-publish a book. Here are my top five:

Agency:

Self-publishing allows the author complete editorial control of their product. Anyone who has written to a strict institutional editorial/ style guide knows the challenges of feeling stymied or having your voice altered. Self-publishing allows you to establish the voice you choose. (However, make sure when you work with your editorial, you explain your style choices. Better yet, create a style guide for your book that you can pass on to your editor.)

Nothing feels better than holding your book in your hand, your hopes made manifest, bound and ready.  If you have felt you have not had agency over your ideas or your IP, self-publishing will feel freeing, maybe even rectifying.

Brand:

Self-publishing is a great way to establish a niche in the market. I self-published a book about Self-Care that helped many museum professionals get to know me. The project started out as a personal one, but then I decided to share it broadly. While I published the book to help others, as the ideas helped me, I was pleasantly surprised at how much attention I received. It helped me gain name recognition as a consultant.

Books can also help support an existing brand. Let’s say you have a successful blog. If you want to expand the reach, or make your brand feel more established, find a way to weave that brand into a book.

Timeliness:

Self-publishing is time-consuming, even if you outsource design and editing. (Please, please outsource editing.) Traditional publications have deadlines that might be out of your control. But, self-publishing is like running your own business. You set your work hours and deadlines. You might choose, as I did, to have the book ready for a big event (in my case #MCN2017/ #MCN50), and you are in control of launching on time. Also, if someone else is working in the same area, you can bring your book to market before them.

Format:

Publishers and museum publication departments usually have branded formats, so breaking from them can be challenging. If your project is something somewhat untraditional, self-publishing allows you to establish your own format. For example, I published a self-care book in response to my stress about American politics. I wanted the format to be a workbook. I didn’t have to ask anyone. I just did it. Thankfully, people enjoyed it.

Money:

Self-publishing isn’t necessarily the path to riches. Given the number of hours needed to finish a project, you might barely break even. If you publish as part of your job in an institution/museum, you get no royalties. Self-publishing allows you to be compensated directly for your work.

Zine:

So how do you actually self-publish? There are many ways to do this, and even more resources online, but here is a zine that might help you get started. (printable / read online)

20 Nov

#MCN2018 Recap

Most years, on my plane back from MCN, I am furiously typing up notes from sessions. This year, I was volunteer co-chair and Human-Centered Design SIG co-chair. As a result, I was ever-present but not always there when it came to sessions. However, I had a better sense of what people felt about what they heard. Here are the five ideas I heard most often:

AI, Machines, and Thoughtfulness:

Amber Case said in her keynote, “I don’t want to be a systems administrator in my own home.” She was alluding to the prevalence of digitally-enabled devices in contemporary life. Museums are now more commonly using iBeacons, RFIDs, and other tools that collect data on patrons. This data can be incredibly useful for improving experience and operations, however, data collection is also incredibly challenging. First, and foremost, data is a responsibility. Our institutions need to be thoughtful about honoring our tacit relationship with our visitors to treat them well, including by treating their data well. We also need to help visitors understand how we use data, anonymize data as often as possible, and be thoughtful in the conclusions we draw from the data. Finally, visitor data is only one part of decision-making. Staff feedback is an essential tool. Most museums do a poor job of aggregating staff data on visitor experience and an even poorer job of honoring and acting on that data.

Humans make Mistakes:

No person is faultless but many museums are still reticent to be honest about failures. Sharing failures and working collaboratively across institutions to find better solutions could save the field money and headache in the long run. Many museum professionals find strictures prevent them from being honest with peers at other institutions. They also find it challenging to find places other than conferences to share their challenges, particularly places where they can publish failures.

Humans together are better than apart or against each other:

Collaboration remains a perennial topic. Collaboration with other organizations is particularly hard for many as their internal systems are in disrepair. Even when collaboration is successful, many of the collaborative projects are grant-funded, or time-restricted. The lessons learned about collaboration are often not folded into the museum processes.

Bias isn’t Mitigated without Action:

Everything is biased because humans are. Data is created by humans and therefore biased. Many of our technology-projects are outcome-focused and deadline-driven, like a DAM that must launch in six-weeks or an interactive for an exhibition. Timelines and ignorance have meant that these technology projects have often been produced without considering and mitigating bias.

Design for Accessibility is Actually Good for All:

Accessibility and inclusion are about being thoughtful to accommodate the widest range of people. But, in doing so, everyone is helped. Accessibility, however, doesn’t happen by accident. Thought must be taken to make the right choices so all patrons are included. While upfront cost might make this seem frivolous, the increase in audience engagement for the broadest audience makes designing for all worth it. User Experience Design, Service Design, and Human-Centered Design are useful ways for organizations to make sure to develop accessible projects. These processes can be adopted by all types of professionals. There are many resources, including these from me and MCN’s HCD SIG workshop. (Join by DMing @artlust).

Girl Surrounded by Technology objects

Conclusion

Overall, while the conferences was called humanizing the digital, I felt that the conference was really about humans and their existence in a dense digital environment. The ideal is to create digital that does not destroy nor negate our humanity. This ideal will only occur with careful thought. When digital is seen as the medium and not the message or the meaning, people are able to have superlative experiences.

 

Finally, I heard over and over that MCN is attendee’s annual chance to recharge and reconnect with champions. The MCN community comes out in full force at the conference. For some of us, it remains with us during the rest of the year, like on social media. Yet, many people mentioned how they wished they had more chances to share ideas, like in publications. Think of how much better the field would be next year if all of the 500 plus attendees shared one idea to a peer at their institution, one idea to a supervisor/ director, and one broadly to the field. These ideas could be shared in emails, tweets, talks, blog posts, published articles, or books. The community of MCN is only as strong as its participants and their strength is in their ideas. By sharing these ideas, attendees can exponentially expand the good happening in the field.

09 Nov

Simple Steps to Increase Equity: Considering Gender Pronouns

A human brain is basically a pattern-deciphering machine. People make millions of judgments daily, mostly unconsciously. Their brains match all new inputs against all the data that resides in their brains. When the first white flake falls from the sky, they don’t consciously match this information against all the memories in the brain. But, unconsciously, they are connecting this image to frames of reference in their minds. They need not fear invasion by cold, wet aliens; it’s just snow, they know. (For some of us, that’s scary enough.)

Our mental framing devices are constantly evolving. Babies quickly acquire the frames to understand that eyes mean humans, for example. But, later, we learn that things that look like they have eyes might be inanimate.

Some of our most central frames are imbued with social norms. Consider the question about how you identify. You likely spent the first couple decades of life honing your identity. Your style, for example, might be incredibly important to how you see yourself. I, personally, have a strong correlation between my identity and my style. I see myself as an outgoing, rule-breaker, and my style is part of that. For others, punctuality might be part of their personality. Musical taste, hobbies, vocal intonation are other examples of how people externally express their identity. And, each of those external expressions is imbued with social constructs. By choosing those expressions, people are engaging with other people’s frames of reference (even if unconsciously.)

External identity markers are based on choice. Other identity markers are inherent to people. Gender, sexuality, race, and class are all accidents of birth. The way you express and live these characters are likely a mix of nature and nurture. The way we perceive other people’s gender, sexuality, race, and class often come down to our frames of reference.

Gender can be particularly hard. Many people have a frame of reference formed in youth that suggests two genders.  When we get input that goes against this frame of reference, we can feel confused, confounded, or even incensed. All of a sudden, our accepted frame of reference is being called into question. But, destabilizing your frame of reference can be an important way to evolve your thinking. Confronting new ideas about gender can feel like you are coming against your most deeply held beliefs about your identity. But, other people’s gender identity isn’t about you. It’s about them. Learning to be flexible in thinking and communicating about gender is a way of increasing equity in the world.

Sometimes it is helpful to remember that our frames of reference are culturally constructed rather than absolute. Gender, for example, is considered differently in many societies. A friend recently mentioned Fa’afa, an element of Samoan culture, as well as gender in New Zealand,  that is completely different than the binary concept of gender many Americans perceive as a given. In reading some of the resources she passed on (see below), I was struck at how different this conceptualization is my own. This is not a question of debating rightness between any one way of seeing gender. Instead, the frameworks in Samoan/ and Maori society highlight how culturally constructed mine is and therefore helps me remember that my ideas are not absolute or immutable. When you have a hard time thinking about someone who is different than a frame of reference you know, remember the binary is a construct of our society and not an element of all human societies.

Even in our own society, our conceptualization of gender can be more than a simple duality. Look at this example of how gender is expressed in common spoken American English:
 Person 1: What time did this letter come in? Who sent it?
Person 2: I don’t know. I didn’t even see the Postal worker
 Person 1: So, you don’t know what they said?
Person 2: No idea. Just call them and stop bothering me.

In this example, there is one postal worker who is referred to as them. In spoken English, when a gender is not known, we turn to the collective nouns, they/them. This linguistic norm is so naturalized, you might not realize that you do it. So, when you have problems using a collective noun when a person has expressed their pronouns to be they/them, think of this example. You can do grow to change how you use pronouns.

Like all things human, there are many ways of seeing the world. Remembering that our conceptualization is culturally constructed can help you learn to evolve your way of thinking. Evolving your frames of reference can be an essential way to improve the ways that you interact with others. It can make others feel more welcome, but it can also help you connect with many more people.

Resources about Fa’afa and Gender in New Zealand:

A Video about Fa’afafine

Maori approach to transgender (often included with LGBTQ+ under the term ‘Takatapu’ )

This is part of an ongoing series about small actions you can do to increase your ability to increase equity in society.

The previous post was:

Simple Steps to Increase Your Ability to Fight for Equity

 

18 Oct

Comparing User-Experience Design and Service Design Tools

User-Design and Service Design continue to grow closer together as disciplines. There are many process and tools associated with both fields. It can be challenging to keep each of these processes straight, as well as understand how they play out in each discipline. This cheat sheet helps make sense of some of the most common tools.

11 Oct

Cognitive Dissonance as Part of Equality Work

Working towards equality in society requires many skills, not the least of which is the desire and ability to challenge one’s assumptions and beliefs.  Many people think they are flexible thinkers. However, their flexibility usually has limits. Most our cognitive flexibility is tested in neutral or non-emotional settings. Think of the 21st-century skills like critical thinking and problem-solving. Each of those skills requires mental flexibility. But, most of the problems we solve don’t touch our core ideas of identity. Truly working on improving equity in society is beyond thinking outside the box. It is about realizing the box is not a box at all.

Equity is being used here to cover issues related to diversity, access, and inclusion in order to create a society in which all people are treated fairly respective of who they are. All people have beliefs and assumptions that are biased. Many people are learning to reconsider some of their biases. But, they often only focus on conscious assumptions.

For example, they might learn that certain terminology they have been using is wrong, like Transgendered is not the correct term. But, many people don’t dig into the underlying unconscious feelings they may have. In this case, transgendered is grammatically incorrect just as Italianed-American is incorrect. However, the phrase transgendered sounds as if the state of being trans was an action or a choice. Being trans is neither just as being female is not a choice for people who identify as such.  For many people, intellectually changing terms is easier than actually facing their underlying assumptions. Therefore, someone who might use the word trans can still act in ways that are inadvertently or intentionally anti-trans. Most people have many unconscious assumptions about gender that are intertwined with their own identity. Being able to act in ways that are truly trans-supportive requires unpacking and facing these assumptions.

How do you do this? Firstly, seeing that your ideas are biased is essential. Comparing your assumptions with a contrary idea (i.e. an idea disruptor) is an important way to be able to face your biases. The contrary idea creates an unpleasant feeling and results in changes in attitude and beliefs, i.e. a cognitive dissonance. Without changing these underlying assumptions, you often still act in the same way you would have before facing an idea disruptor.

Most diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion training focuses on superficial ideas, and therefore does not result in changed actions. That is partly because facing one’s underlying assumptions cannot occur via external action. You need to do the work yourself. But, when you do, your actions towards equity will be transformed.

 

 

09 Oct

Simple Steps to Increase Your Ability to Fight for Equity

Recently, I was asked about how to help someone grow their understanding of equity. Many people of color have been doing this work since birth. White people need to choose to do this work, as our society has been formed to center and support whiteness. The work of transforming everything you believe about your society is not easy.

First, you need to accept that everything you believe is wrong. Shaking one’s foundations is unsettling, to say the least. But, cracking those innate assumptions is essential, so that the new ideas about our society have space to take root.

Every once in a while, someone tells something that creates profound cognitive dissonance. Recently, on a trip to England, my young daughter was asking me what we would see Native American art at the National Gallery, London. In the end, I came to understand that she wasn’t asking if we would see work from the tribes of the Americas. She was asking if we would see work of the indigenous people of the British Isles. There I was on the escalators in the Tube, leagues, or so, under London, realizing that indigenous and person of color were synonymous in my daughter’s mind. The conversation has stuck with me partly as it illustrates how many coded ideas are imbued in every word we use. Those codes remain invisible unless you are forced to reconsider those ideas. Once you see the codes, you can never un-see them. Think of coded language as a sort of optical illusion. Once your eyes see the trick, you always see it. So, how do you ensure you can “see” social inequity in all its myriad forms?

Placing yourself in moments of cognitive dissonance is essential to being about to transform your world view. You need to be proactive finding ideas and situations that break you out of your norms. You need to challenge yourself to see the world differently. You are the only one who can transform your vision of society.

So, where do you start? Reconsidering the fundamentals of your world is a good place to start. Look at ideas and concepts that you face every day. Break down your assumptions about those ideas.

Family is a particularly interesting one. Even those who aren’t close to their family face the concept constantly.

Take this situation. You walk into a coffee shop to look for a seat. You scan the room and find no tables available. You buy your coffee to go. By the time you leave, you have seen dozens of people. As you scanned the table, you likely unconsciously judged the relationship between the people at the tables. Everyone unconsciously makes hundreds of snap judgments, making images with frames of understanding, every day. Your brain decided on the relationship between people, even if you didn’t consciously realize this. The challenge is that your unconscious ideas are often biased.

American society was founded with the idea of the family being heterosexual with natural-born children and married adults. The idea of 2.5 children in the home of their birth parents is pervasive in our collective subconscious. Family has been transformed considerably in the last fifty years. Interracial relationships are at an all-time high. The state of marriage is no longer defined by gender.

Yet, many people still have innate, unconscious ideas about family. In that coffee shop, if there was a table with a black man and two white children, would you have said family? What about an old Filipino woman and two white children? A white woman and two black children? Two white men and one black boy? All of those groups might define themselves as family. They might not be related. They might. They might family friends, big brothers, foster parents, neighbors, nannies, families by choice, or blood relatives. But, they might all say they are family.

Family is defined individually not from the outside. The idea that family isn’t about blood or marriage breaks many of the unconscious ideas you might hold. You might know this intellectually, but I challenge you to find ways to short-circuit your unconscious frames of reference about family. Next time you are scanning a crowd force yourself to stop and question the groups you didn’t see as family.

 

This is part of an ongoing series about small actions you can do to increase your ability to increase equity in society.

 

25 Sep

Setting the Stage for Great AR/ VR Projects

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.

18 Sep

Immersion and Museums

In early September, the Knight Foundation sponsored an event at the Detroit Institute of Arts called Immersion in Museums: AR, VR or Just Plain R?. Here are some reflections from the day.  

Waning attendance has museum professionals seeking novel ways to increase audiences. Many institutions are looking to immersive technology as salvation for their visitation woes. Technology alone, however, will not ensure the future of museum attendance. Museums need to develop engaging, immersive experiences to buoy to transform their attendance.

Museums, Technology, and Immersion Now

Technology appeals to museum executives hoping to counteract criticism of being stodgy or old-fashioned. While a decade ago museums often placed technology in sequestered spaces creating an immersive environment by virtue of their physical installation, the most successful recent technology projects are informational rather than immersive. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art gained wide notoriety for their SendMe SFMOMA project, where users could text words to receive corresponding objects. The millions of users increased their awareness of SFMOMAs collection through short, transactional moments. SendMeSFMOMA’s success was predicated on employing mainstream tools to deliver surprising content. Akron Art Museum’s Dot Chatbot is like a virtual educator, answering questions in real time.

At the same time, museums are in the midst of a non-technology immersion trend. Yayoi Kusuma’s exhibition, Infinite Mirrors, invites people to walk into transformative spaces, many employing mirrors to heighten the effect. The exhibition sold out in venues across the country, with second-party sellers asking hundreds of dollars for a single ticket. While Kusuma’s earliest rooms date to the 1960s, her work’s popularity increased exponentially, thanks to cell phones and social media. Celebrities like Beyonce and Ivanka Trump proudly posted pictures of themselves in her Infinite Mirrors exhibition on their Instagram. The success of the exhibition can be seen as due to the popular zeitgeist rather than the immersive qualities of the works. Visitors want to visit the rooms to photograph themselves in the space.

However, Kusuma’s recent spike in popularity has spawned many immersive museum experiences. The Museum of Ice Cream, the Museum of Selfies, and the Color Factory are examples of immersive spaces. Rather than looking at collections, visitors play in installations. The most successful built immersive experience is not a museum at all, but the artist-made space, MeowWolf, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Artists Golda Blaise and Vince Kadlubek, in collaboration with a larger team, turned an abandoned bowling alley into an interactive artwork. Speaking in Detroit, Kadlubek noted that immersive experiences allow people the agency to drive their engagement. In the MeowWolf experience, visitors are awarded for their curiosity with sensory excess and pleasure. Immersion is a positive feedback loop that drives the enjoyment.

Low-tech immersion has a long history in museums. Specimens and artworks from the world over flooded into Western collections displayed to quell the voracious European intellectual interests. Beginning in 1812, John Soane, an early prophet of museums, filled his London home with his collection of 45,000 objects.  Visitors today, like those of Soane’s time, can be awed, inspired, and even overwhelmed by Soane’s collecting prowess. Public museums in the 19th century continued Soane’s practice of displaying objects in dense groupings. Salon hanging, or hanging works in multiple stacked tiers, was common practice for most major art collections well into the 20th century. The sheer volume of art in one space inspired delight and wonder in visitors. Everyone could find something that appealed.

The physical space of the early museums were also immersive environments. Most early museums included fine details throughout from detailed floors, vaulted ceilings, and adorned exterior architecture. This attention to detail was meant to elicit specific feelings in visitors. Consider the fine exterior courtyard of the Victoria and Albert Museum, with its extraordinary mosaic tile scenes depicting artisans in action. Visitors, then and now, feel the transformative effect of spending a few minutes cosseted from the hubbub of London street, seated on the cool grass, surrounded by the awe-inspiring built environment.

Museum practices have moved away from chock-a-block installations and baroque spaces in the two hundred years since Soane’s time. American museums particularly have moved towards thinned out galleries surrounded by empty wall space. Museum professionals often suggest sparse installations allow visitors the chance to examine collections closely.

Immersion in Society

As museum practice has become more rarified, everyday life has become more immersive. Most visitors walking into museums have experienced some form of brand immersion. Most stores have a music playlist carefully chosen to project their company culture. Walking through the aisles, the shopper is unconsciously being immersed into the feel of their brand.

Explicitly immersive experiences are big business, as well. Disney makes billions annually on visitors hoping to escape into a different reality. Disney draws on decades of immersive education to deliver seamless experiences to visitors by blending built space with technology. Most visitors notice the attention to detail in the built space that makes fictional spaces manifest. However, Disney also exemplifies the hallmark of immersive experiences. Heightened experiences require playing with multiple senses. Disney subtly controls every sense in their spaces, including smell. With the mechanics hidden, the Disney visitor can be transformed into worlds that never existed.

Successful experiences do not need built space to be immersed. Video games are a $108.9 billion industry partly thanks to their highly immersive nature. Setting aside virtual reality and augmented reality for the moment, most video games have all the hallmarks of immersive experiences. Games are designed to make players feel as if they have entered the world of the game. The effect is so compelling that players often lose all sense of time as they become subsumed by the experience. People playing games feel empathy for their digital simulacrum in the game. The immersive nature of video games, like in Disney, is a carefully manufactured effect. Designers craft compelling storylines and build out complex digital spaces complete auditory effects and sounds. Players respond by feeling completely transported to the game world.

The appetite for immersive leisure has fueled intense interest in virtual reality and augmented reality. Virtual reality is a technology tool, usually accessed through a visor-headset, let’s users explore a world in 360-degrees. Augmented reality adds a virtual layer to reality, say through using a mobile app that combines input from a camera with digital content.  Virtual reality uses technology to take people to new places, while augmented reality brings new places into people’s current reality.

These technologies remain in their pioneer phase. Consumer behaviors will help the scale of success and diffusion of VR and AR. Pokemon Go is oft noted as being the first successful AR game. In the game, players capture figures who seemingly appear in their actual surroundings, as pictured in the app. The player’s wonderment and delight are predicated on the juxtapositions between their world and another reality. The New York Times, under Maureen Towey, has been producing virtual reality videos that use cell phones and Google Cardboard. Towey noted at the Detroit convening that this medium allows people to explore in 360 degrees just as they view their real world. The NYTimesVR endeavor is seen as an extension of their existing work. These short videos are framed to tell immersive stories. Through experiencing video of the Land of Salt and Fire, for example, consumers delve into a story about Ethiopia’s Afar people.

Consumer behavior outside the museum sphere affects their desires for institutions. The trend for immersive exhibitions, therefore, is as much a product of the appetite for immersive games as an interest in being able to take trendy social media photographs. Therefore, museums would be remiss to ignore immersion as a form of visitor engagement. Immersive engagement is within the museum’s historical underpinnings.

Museums and the Future of Immersion

A few museums have had real success using technology to enhance reality. The Canadian Human Rights Museum had a well-reviewed virtual reality experience helping patrons understand the lives of Guatemalan women. The Knight Foundation-funded Detroit Institute of Art’s Lumin experience uses AR to deliver interpretation about the collection. While there are differences between these experiences, an important similarity connects them—they are visually-driven technology-mediated interpretive tools. Technology allows museums to break away from textual interpretation. Engaging patrons using other senses and forms of meaning-making is an important step in diversifying audiences.

These early museum AR/VR projects, though, only hint at the future of museum immersion. For the possibilities to come to fruition, however, the field needs to transform many of its processes. Immersion requires placing visitor experience above content goals. For museums, moving towards a human-centered design can be challenging. Museums are more comfortable at broadcasting information based on their internal, curatorial goals. This status quo is antithetical to the ideal processes needed to create compelling, immersive experiences. However, if museums are willing to move towards visitor-centered experience design, their audience and reach will expand greatly. The trade-off is the long run is a worthy one. Immersive experiences offer museums a future where huge audiences are a reality.