22 May

The Near-Future of Museum Education for K-12 Audiences



This afternoon I had the privilege of participating in the North Carolina Museum of Art’s project, #NCMAAsk (search twitter for more), which is focused on museums, technology, and the future.  There were a number of issues that came up, but, many of them centered around hearing, listening, and flexibility.

Museums in their partnership with schools have can serve as advocates for students and teachers, but only if they are creating programming, experiences, resources, and spaces that respond to their needs.  In terms of advocating for teachers, it includes helping them out, it includes offering teachers the language that they can use to communicate the importance of the arts to their higher ups. It terms of advocating for students, it is about creating and implementing curriculum that is student centered.

Museums have the lucky position of being outside of the school’s systems.  They don’t have the same rules and museum experiences don’t end in grades.  We don’t know who is the smart student, the weird kid, or the screw up.  A good museum educator takes all of the kids where they come, and brings them all into the experience.  On an even footing, but in a totally different learning experience, a totally different kid might find themselves as the smart kid.  In museums, K-12 classrooms get the chance to visit an alternate learning universe, if it is even for one hour.

I was asked to me an oracle of the future of education.  I think there are some big issues, such as competency-based education and the complete restructuring of the grade-level system.  I think museums, with their high-quality digital tools, apps, and powerful search engines, will be poised to be right there at the horizon of education.  But, I am more focused on the closer targets.  In the short term, I am focused on how to deepen engagement through multi-visit experiences, as well as the ways that after school education can be impacted by museums. Also, I am interested to think about the ways that museums can use technology to augment K-12, such as through distance learning, online learning, and simulations.

Finally, individualized learning is already happening every where.  Phones are tools for learning and creativity.  Museums can employ them in gallery spaces with students. But, this requires the staff being comfortable with these tools and finding authentic ways to use them.  Taking the students lead, so allowing them to search on their phones when they are researching something in the galleries, is a great way to use mobile as a tool.

20 May

Donald Draper on the Way of Museums

“You are the product. You feel something.” Mad Men

The television show Mad Men celebrates the way that advertising men transformed brands like Hershey and Jaguar from things you buy into personas with which you identify.  In the show, Don Draper, a complicated anti-hero, was shown developing poetic narratives that made people connect with products.  With the power of words and images, Draper transformed things into experiences.

Draper’s powers in transfiguration seemed rooted in his innate understanding of culture and human nature.  While womanizing and hard-drinking, at his core, Draper seemed intensely empathic, employing this power for commercial ends.  In actor Jon Hamm’s read of the finale, Draper understands his core self in a moment of meditation.  Hamm’s reading is based on a sequence where Draper is seen smiling amid a cliff full of hippies before a cut to an iconic Coke ad about love and peace.  Rather than seeing Don as an opportunist, Hamm suggests that Draper realizes what he is—someone good at connecting people to ideas.

Museums might take a few notes from these admen.  Art museums do not make art; they make art available. Natural history museums might engage in excavations, but they didn’t fossilize the dinosaurs. Instead, museums are trying to get people to choose to buy what they are selling—cultural heritage.

But, people are buying our product less regularly. Museum attendance continues to drop. It might be because museums are selling the wrong thing.  Many museums are housed in buildings that were new and flashy. Building projects allowed many institutions to announce record attendance.  Now, these buildings are last season’s product.  Museum buildings are structures, elaborate housing for a collection.  Few buildings in our nation go beyond brick and mortar in the public consciousness. Even spaces that do, say the Rocky steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, are often imbued with meaning outside of the work of the museum itself.

The analogy of a movie theater might be helpful.  Movie theaters are places to go for entertainment.  Like museums, movie theaters are seeing numbers go down.  Like many museums, movie theaters house a watched form of entertainment. But, few, if any, movie theaters operate as 501-C3s.  They need to turn a profit to keep the doors open, and they have little hope of garnering donations to buoy their bottom line.  With such stakes, there is little time for academic concerns about whether they should sell the idea of movie theaters or the actual movie in the theaters.  They sell the movie, or they will have no theater to show the movie in.  Movies are the thing that make people go to movie theaters.

So, what should museums sell to get people go to museums?  If you follow my analogy to its conclusion, the answer would be collections.  Is that what the adman would say?  I think Don Draper would say that museums need to package themselves in ways that resonate.  In the Mad Men universe, Draper took the zeitgeist of his time, and with a Californian clarity, thought about what would make people feel a connection to the brand.  In that famous feel good ad, the Coca Cola brand positioned itself as a convener of people.

What will make people connect to museums?  What is that pitch that will help people feel that museums are as essential to their lives as a cold coke? After all, if anyone can teach a thing or two about homes,  honey bees, and turtle doves, certainly museums are well placed to educate the future in perfect harmony.

01 May

Usability for Users; Consumerability for Consumers?

Usability is one of those words that has a faint jargon-style feeling to it. In pitching the power of eyetracking, card sorts, and participant design, you are wisest to avoid all those terms.  These are terms that alienate your clients.  As John Rhodes discusses in Selling Usability, focusing on the customers, rather than the testing, will help people understand the end goal of testing.

To get to that goal, you will need to design a test, perform the test, get results, analyze the rests.  After all of that, you will then need to make sense of the data.  With eye tracking, for example, you will need to help make sense of heat maps.

Visualizations, when interpreted well and correlated with think aloud information, can translate data into meaning. A final report puts everything together creating meaning out of data.  In the end, usability could be said to be the study of users and interfaces. But, you could think of it as understanding customers or consumers, and then finding a way to help your clients see what you have come to understand.