29 Jun

Keep Clean Data

Data seems pretty cut and dried, but don’t be fooled. There are plenty of ways to fold in bias.  Here are some concrete steps to help you do your best to counteract the most common pitfalls.

Start with a clean tool/ protocol to collect data.

1. Keep data clean

There are plenty of ways to keep you tidy. First, have everyone use the same protocol. Ideally, keep your data collector pool down to a minimum. More people means potentially multiple interpretations. Train everyone the same. Take out the protocol and make sure everyone understands it. And, make sure everyone uses the same data collection tool. I used to work in a team of three data collectors. We had to agree to everything, and often huddled up to make sure we were on the same page. Be vigilant

2. Observe First, Interpret Later

Years ago, when I worked on hiring teachers for the public schools, I had to take a course on legal job interviews. The fear that the trainer burned into my soul always returns to me when I do interviews. Only write what people say–word for word. Do not interpret. This goes against your human nature. And, if you have a hard time writing, ask respondents if you can record them. Also, feel free to ask the people who provided the data whether your interpretations seem to be representative of their beliefs. Once all the data comes in, then you have the joy of interpretation. That said, once you get familiar with interpretation-free listening, you will also find joy in data collection.

3. Check out the competition.

After your initial interpretations, look to others to see how they are tackling this issue. What are their findings? What other issues might be occurring in the literature. This is sometimes called triangulation. If you can find other sources of data that support your interpretations, then you can have more confidence that what you’ve found is legitimate.

4. Check for alternative explanations.

False conclusions are absolutely the most likely place that bias comes into understanding data.  Jumping to conclusions can feel normal, like finishing someone’s sentence.  But, just was you can’t fill in the blanks for your respondents, don’t fill in the blanks for yourself too quickly.  Consider whether there are other reasons why you obtained your data. If you can rule out or account for alternative explanations, your interpretations will be stronger

5. Review findings with peers

Don’t be an island. Unless confidentiality prevents you, let others look at your data. You will only become better at your work with critical assessments. Additionally, when you allow peers to review your work, you might find commonalities. You might even be able to augment your argument.

For more about data bias, here is a long read sharing more issues like confirmation bias, ingroup bias, and knowledge bias. 

27 Jun

Its Not the Destination OR Journey Mapping for Museums



Visitor experience is everyone’s job, not just those people who have “visitor” or “experience” in their title. Picture your visitor. What is the first thing that comes to mind? What are they doing? Buying a ticket? Standing in your gallery? Reading your labels. These are the types of touchpoints that are the focus of many museum professionals. However, you are missing important elements of your visitor’s experience. Much of the make and break comes at the moments in between.

Step back for a moment, think about going to the grocery store. You bought vegetables, milk, and bread. You also bought six things that were not on your list. Is that what you remembered? Or did you also remember the old lady who cut you off on the way to the corn? And, the sample guy trying to convince you that “pea-based false meat” is pretty good. Then there was your third-grade teacher standing in the lunch meat aisle. Many of your memories are about the moments in between destinations. As the adage extolls, it’s the journey not the destination.

Pathway Planning

Focusing on the journey requires changing focus from end-point planning, where you focus your energy on the galleries, turning instead to pathways. This shift requires focusing on the visitor’s needs and actions. In doing this, the energy shifts focus from the institution, often placing its decision-making heft in gallery-based decisions, to the visitor, whose experience is often born of the spaces in between the parking lot to the gallery. Mapping out people’s paths is called Journey Mapping, in User Experience Design talk. But, basically, you visualize what people do and why they do it.

Why use Journey Mapping?

As another old adage goes, don’t judge until you walk a mile in his shoes.  The saying, trite as it is, points to the role of understanding in creating a Journey Map. In other words, an ideal pathway planning process requires purpose and empathy to be foregrounded. Instead of just the nodes, or the point of getting somewhere, you spend your energy on every moment in between.  When you do that you learn new insights into your visitors’ decision-making processes. You also learn when serendipity and/ poor planning cause reactions. In other words, you get insight into why people react to your spaces.  In this way, journey mapping helps break through status quo planning, i.e. doing something as its always been done.

How do you Journey Map?

  1. Just as with fiction, journey maps should draw on what you know. So, start by observing patrons. But, then use that as the base to creating your map.
  2. A journey map is not a generic map. The journey map starts with a person. Specificity is essential. This is not like google maps. Instead, it’s more than the map your best friend gives you with asides about great signs and tips about places you will get lost. When doing journey maps, take a point of view. Keep that person in mind as you work.
  3. Next go for story. Imagine this person coming to your organization. Why are they there? What do they want out of it? That will be the motivation. Write out a two-sentence story of their motivations and goals, like the plot of their visit.
  4. The map is sort of the arc of your story, with all the tangents and eddies that your character might need to be authentic. Make sure to think out the path and the stops. Be specific about the character’s motivation and well as their process.
  5. You might imagine that you start by drawing. But, the best journey maps are visualizations of an experience that you have thoroughly planned. They are not random. So, waiting to draw allows you to be purposeful.

Even if you choose to hire someone to do your journey maps, understanding the process is incredibly useful. It helps you understand why maps are useful. They help you understand your visitor’s holistically. Often museum staff prioritize decisions without having a thorough understanding of their visitor. Tools like journey maps help you center your visitor in your process in ways that draw on process and empathy.

22 Jun

What Museums can Learn from Libraries

Museums and libraries are like sister institutions, descended of the same parent–the love of knowledge.  However, like siblings, there are as many things that connect them as separate them.  Both have collections. Both value education. Both serve the same general public. And, yet, there are so many differences.

Why Libraries?

First, let’s think about scale. There are 850 million visits  to museums annually.  If you take that attendance number spread out for all museums, museums have an average of 2400 people a year.   Public libraries, on the other hand, have 1.5 billion people visit their buildings, which is 4 million people a day, or an average of 166,660 people for each library. They circulated 835.6 million children’s books in 2013, or almost 12 books per child. In other words, libraries got museums beat in terms of sheer numbers, that also means, they have  a good deal of experience making patrons happy.  What can museums learn from these patron-serving powerhouses?

5 Things Libraries do Well

1. An Institution is Not a Building:

Most museums are a place where people go for a visit. they go to a special building to access special artifacts. The building itself is almost a stand-in for the institution. Libraries have a sort of franchise model. One library system might have dozens of buildings, mobile trucks, carts, etc. The built structure as a space might hold the collection, but it doesn’t contain it. The collection is beyond the building.

2. Collections are Shared: 

Museums collections are held in trust in the building of the museums, where visitors go to experience the authentic object. Library books, their collection, are meant to be shared. Far from being unique, these books are easily replaced (except special collections). A physical book can hold as much meaning as its digital simulcra.

3. One Size doesn’t Fit All and it’s Cool:

Libraries serve many people by meeting them where they are. They give you resources onsite and online.  Once you get your library card, you could be a weekly patron yet never walk into the library building. Yet, your digital checkouts still make you a member of the community. And, that e-book version of Moby Dick has as much whale-y goodness as the paper one.

4. Libraries are There for You:

Libraries are  often positioned as places that serve patrons. Librarians help you find books and help you get answers to your questions. Their programs are responding to the needs of patrons. In other words, libraries are the ideal user-centered  public institution.

5. Libraries are Free and You Know it:

You don’t hear people say they don’t “get” libraries, in the way that people say that they don’t “get” museums.  But, libraries have their messaging right. Most libraries have the word “public” in their name. There is no doubt who the audience is–everyone. People don’t wonder if they might need to pay.  People get it–libraries are free.



20 Jun

Exhibition Cocktails or Why Museums Need User Experience Designers

I admit that I am biased.  I am a trained User Experience Designer.  But, you don’t have to has an M.S. to know that visitors come to museums for experiences. Now, we could get into a debate about the type of experience. Sitting quietly in a gallery is a type of experience.  We often think of our spaces as nouns (Chinese paintings, fossils, penguins), but visitors think of them as experiences (go to the art museum, look at the dinosaurs, wander in the zoo).

User Experience is about shifting all the activities from the institution doing the serving (the museum) to the person being served (the visitor). Even the word visitor has challenging connotations. The word visitor does not indicate the interactional nature of the experience. Patron might be better. Despite the challenges with that word, patron does indicate that a choice has been made. That person has chosen to patronize this establishment to do something.

Many activities in the museum-sphere also change, such as interpretation/ education/ or content in this framework. (I find interpretation a challenging term. It implies a sort of power differential, where  some special person serves an an intercessor for knowledge. Interestingly, this term is most often associated with art museums further implying that art is about getting it. But, that is for another blog post...)

If you think about a person walking into a space, all the ideas should enhance the experience. You might think of the experience as a volume, like a cup. Everything that is written (signs, labels, etc) are about getting the right recipe for the best cocktail.  Now, while I don’t mean to imply that being in an exhibition is like drinking, the right mix of exhibition elements can be intoxicating.  So, the act of putting it all together, developing all the elements is about facilitating an experience. Writing then becomes about distilling an experience into words rather than just transmitting ideas.

The ideas as still there, in case someone has started screaming, she wants to dumb it down. Instead, you look at the experience that would make people be the most receptive to the ideas, and then use that  as your guide for writing. What does change in this scenario is writing for writing sake. This is hard! I love the written word (I do after all blog every week). But, when we preference the word to the feeling, we are not centering our patrons. We are centering ourselves and our needs.

In user-centered interpretation, labels, panels, audio, etc, all are like animals in an ecosystem, and the Interpretation/ Education staff are the unseen mechanism that keeps everything in balance. They might also be more than an invisible force. They create ways to test content, such as understanding emotional impact of tone. They help make sure that the experience improves iteratively.  Most of all, they are the advocate for the patrons.

Finally, in a design shop, the knowledge and value of the user experience designer is important to brand success.  Rather than being at the bottom of the hierarchy, their knowledge set is integral, being part of inception to completion of projects.  In user-centered museums, education/ interpretation is there throughout on all sorts of projects so as to ensure the ideal experience. They understand that good vibes make for happy, repeat users.  After all, if you want your patrons to toast the great times at your museums, they have to feel your brand.



13 Jun

On Objectivity & What Museums Can Learn from News Organizations

Recently, Koven Smith retweeted an article from the American Alliance of Museums that unpacked the contention that museums are one of the most trusted sources of knowledge. An overwhelming number of respondents (87%) felt that museums were “one of the most trustworthy sources of objective information.”  As the AAM article lays out, visitors did not see museums as a place to deal with relevant or controversial issues, i.e. issues that might be considered subjective. Instead, museums were seen as spaces for leisure enjoyment, not for controversy.

On Objectivity: 

This article and the tweet struck a chord, because I have been thinking about the perception of objectivity since Museum and the Web.  The opening plenary, given by Tim Phillips of Beyond Conflict, served as a call to arms to engage people in our collections through multiple relevant intercessions. As is my habit, I took notes by Twitter.  One of my tweets seemed fairly innocuous to me:

In response, I received a number of troll-style responses (now blocked). The trolls spoke of the destruction of America itself by trying to subvert museums from a single narrative to a variety of ancillary, and unnecessary, narratives.  While I love a tweet storm as much as many, and enjoy bringing any point down to 139 choice characters, I was at a loss. The anger about inclusion didn’t surprise me. Equity often makes people uncomfortable; there is always the fear that a bigger table means less companionship for some. What surprised me were number of comments about the objectivity of museums.

Museum work is social situated. Curating is about deciding on a narrative. If you are doing cutting-edge work, you might be completely changing the historical record. Even in the simplest rehang of a gallery, choices are made. Some narratives didn’t make it in.

People seem acutely aware that news makes tough choices. Readers seem to understand that news is subjective, even before Fake News became a regular harping point. Letters to the editor often include points where readers disagree with writers. On the Media, on NPR, regularly shares issues about media responses to issues, in terms of scale and approach.  People get that the news is not a monolith.

While the backlash against fake news can be searing, there is also a wonderful public discourse and engagement with the products of the Media.  With that in mind, museums would only grow patrons by shedding their veneer of objectivity.  Implementing this would require molting of long projected tenets, and this will be challenging.  However, the transformation of the media in the last decade offers useful starting points.

Here are some useful starting points:

  1. Ideas are the product!  Newspapers, with their wonderful smell of printers ink, are slowing becoming like the platypus, relics of another era that exists in small quantity reminding us of the past. The news itself has long since been freed of paper, moved to the electronic realm, an evolutionary leap.   Media companies stayed with what they knew, sharing current ideas, rather than reinventing their format out of whole cloth.  Museums are good at interpreting ideas, putting them in frameworks, describing patterns, and drawing conclusions from grouping objects. These are all idea activities.  Museums do sometimes remember this, like when a particularly good app comes out (go to SFMOMA now). But, often, museums can’t free themselves from their current form to focus on ideas. They can’t imagine the next step in the evolutionary path, and if they aren’t careful, they could go the way of the dodo.
  2. The News is New The earliest newspapers sprung up around the same time museums, both born of Enlightenment ideals of knowledge seeking. In that time, newspapers have changed, particularly in the 21st century, turning from newspapers to media companies (as discussed above).  As a result, media companies project newness, and also practice it. They create new features, like the New York Times interactives or VR initiatives. They fail. They try again.  Museums, on the other hand,  appear to be the same old places with calm quiet galleries.  They project the air of having been the same for time immemorial. Now, as a museum change-maker, I myself might argue that museums have changed.  But, these changes, like apps and learning spaces, likely seem incremental to outsiders.
  3. The Media Makers are in the Story Media groups are transparent about processes. News reporters shoot 2-shots with themselves looking on as victims cry.  Writers includes phrases, hackneyed as they are, like “this reporter for one.”  Museums, on the other hand, practice subjectivity while projecting objectivity.  Without seeing the process, visitors assume a seamless, faultless interpretive plan. Museum could show the choice points and highlight the subject nature of their work better. And, I don’t mean trotting out curators. I mean showing the multiplicity of narratives and challenges to making interpretive decisions.
  4. The News Never Sleeps Years ago, I had a friend in graduate school who had been a journalist.  He could write papers without any procrastination and in a blink. I asked him how he could possibly accomplish such feats. Simple, he told me. He is just being a journalist. Now, while museums don’t need to do a 16-page spread everyday, the timeline of newspapers allows for little preciosity. There isn’t time.  But, the fast timeline also allows for people to hone their skills and for readers to shape the product–everyday.  Think of how good labels would be if there were op eds about their drawbacks!
  5. Errata, errata, errata When you work fast, and with ideas that are subjective, you will get things wrong.  Frankly, when you spend 5 years on a book and an exhibition, you will also get things wrong.  Humans make mistakes.  In the case of media companies, as the publish/ broadcast their ideas, it is quite natural for them to similarly push out their corrections and apologies.  Museums, on the other hand, are more reticent to share such mistakes in interpretation.  When you don’t showcase your mistakes, people don’t know you make them.  When museums hide their mistakes, people see them as static and immutable.

Want to learn more?  Try this podcast that I found very interesting from @museopunks. 

08 Jun

5 Steps to Better Community Conversations

Community conversations can be instrumental in the growth of an organization. However, they can also be an organizations down fall.  These 5 steps can help anyone participating in an conversation, particularly those in power positions or from an organizations.

Honor People’s Perception

We all filter the world through our experiences. Therefore, everyone’s perception of reality will differ. When leading community conversations, listen to others’ perceptions of a situation, and accept that as their reality. It might match yours, but that does not make it any less real to them.  Craft your work to resonate with their perceptions.

Concrete Step: When someone shares their personal experience, listen. Then don’t contradict them. Imagine they say that your organization is not accessible, and your job is to make it accessible. Don’t contradict them. Instead, listen. Try to think out the disconnects between your actions and their perceptions.  Probe them for better knowledge if you can’t see where the disconnects are occurring.

Honor Emotions

Emotions underlie our actions and decisions. Even seemingly logical decisions are imbued with emotions. Emotions are not all bad; they are want make people passionate about your institution. Don’t shut emotions down. As you hear words, also listen to emotions. Make sure your planning takes into account the issues that bring out negative emotions in your audience. Build on positive emotions.

Concrete Step: Let people get upset. Don’t ask them to calm down.  If they are that worked up, then they have some strong ties to your organization or the issue at hand.

Honor Value

Value is hard to quantify. You honor your institution and its work. But, you need to see what new audiences value.  Hear what new audiences value. Then figure out which of your programs and services match your new audiences core values.

Concrete Step:  Value is hard to articulate, sometimes. But, actions often indicate value. So, if they are using your organization, what parts are they using? If they aren’t, what are they doing instead?

Honor Honest Communication

New audiences might communicate in different ways that your existing audience. This can be jarring. But, go with it. Also, you might want to mask emotions through jargon. Don’t! Use clear, concise language. Don’t mask emotions or your discomfort with coded language. If you speak respectfully and honestly, you will be able to connect with new audiences.

Concrete Step: Use the words you mean. If you want to increase African-American audiences, don’t use the word diversity. That said, be honest about why you hope to reach that group. Maybe, they are the majority population in your region.  Great! (Maybe, you think that will be great for funding. Well, than, this is not as great. This sort of pandering will be obvious and less successful. So, go back to the drawing board if this is where you are.)

Honor Your Audience

Any audience, new or old, will be less invested in your work than you are.  You need to connect with them through your communication, but also through actions.  Conversation without action fundamentally disrespects your audience.

Concrete Step:   Don’t start a community conversation if you don’t plan to take actions based on their responses. As above, if your motives are to check a box or please a funder, you will not be successful. You need to actually mean to change your community if you start asking them for help.  If you don’t, they will be alienated and they will remember.

06 Jun

Intersectionality & Museums

Intersectionality, coined in 1989 by legal historian Kimberlé Crenshaw, highlights the fact that the many factors of being human, including race, gender, and religion, overlap in important ways. These points of overlap, or intersection, are often positions of oppression. Think of race and gender. In American society, the position of power in race is whiteness and in gender is male. In comparison, a non-white woman is subjected to oppressive forces in society. Thinking about intersectionality helps reframe issues bringing the oppressed toward the center, rather than multiply marginalized. Ideally, intersectionality allows for stronger analysis of complications. In other words, intersectionality helps everyone be included particularly those who are oppressed and excluded.

So, what does this have to do with museums? Many articulate people have written about this including Gretchen Jennings and Porchia Moore,  Nikhil Trivedi and Porchia Moore, Andriel Luis, and Seph Rodney about the AAM conference.  In this post, I share my meaning-making efforts on the topic.

What do new voices have to do with Intersectionality? 

Think of this artwork.  We do use many facets to consider this object; think of all the fields in a database. However, most institutions keep data based on curatorial research, i.e. filtered through an academic lens.  Some institutions, like history museums, include oral history to add additional layers of information. But most fields do not.  This vase, if it were in an art museum, might be described by media and style. In a history museum, it might be seen as an artifact of an ancient society. In other words, our academic specialties already segregate layers of meaning.

Even beyond that, most museums don’t have database fields to fill in about how this artwork might be seen through a lens of class, race, or gender. These issues are often discussed in chat labels for modern and contemporary artworks, but gender, race, and class have been in play since humans started flaking flints, I wager. Why is this important? First, from an academic perspective, we are missing meaning-making opportunities. But, also, we are not doing the foundational work in thinking more broadly about our collections.

Visitors need points of connections to our collections. Before the accusations of pandering are launched, I am not advocating for removing media, style, period, or any other traditional field of interpretation. Instead, intersectionality allows museums to add to their strong interpretation skills. Plenty of meaning about collections is hidden ready to be uncovered by re-viewing the interpretation.

But what does this mean practically?  

Look at galleries. How are they segmented? Are the “women artists” the only ones where labels discuss gender? Where are “black artists” placed?  What about your staff? Do you tout your black educator as a point of diversity? Your first Asian curator?

Basically, step back and be more purposeful in your actions and words. Give it a mental 360 in terms of how you might be handling issues of race, gender, class, religion… Get help on your thinking. Bring in new voices to help you.

Let’s go back to that vase. Any sense of who made it? Was it a woman? Was it for a rich person? Was it made by slaves? Was the archaeological site in a politically contested area? Were there human remains there? Any of these questions make you a little uncomfortable? I bet. They make me uncomfortable. Many of them touch on the unsaid verboten topics of art and history museums. But, when we don’t answer these questions for ourselves, and for our visitors, we are hiding parts of an object’s history.

Challenges in Including New Voices

Museums professionals often work in synthesizing and organizing information, distilling all along. This is often work that is easier done alone. More people would make the work of research take longer.  Time is of the essence in museums. A new exhibition opens scantly 6 weeks after the last with all the requisite work to make that happen. Anything that slows that down feels onerous and frightening. But, what if that time was planned in at the beginning? Once you get efficient at adding people, this time and work will seem doable.

New voices bring with them new ideas.  Those additional voices might say things that you don’t want to hear.  What if they share their dislike of your institution? They might call out your faults like your institutional racism.  Well, yes, they will probably share your faults. But, you will never improve if you don’t know what to improve. And, they might completely hate museums, but this is fairly unlikely. People will likely not spend time sharing their time with you if they inherently dislike you.  If they truly hate you, they might be moved by strong emotion to tell you. But, once the conversation is done, that moment of discomfort is over.

What needs to change? 

Intersectionality has had some important lobs launched at it. Firstly, it seems like the word du jour, no different than diversity other than the spelling. This is fair claim, in my mind.  It is jargon. People use intersectionality in uninformed ways to suggest their own “wokeness”. Yet, these words exist because as a culture we are trying to communicate ideas of equity. If these words help more people act better, then I am all for them. At its essence, intersectionality is about bringing more into the conversation for greater, more fair, meaning-making. More meaning means connecting to more people.

Museums are actually about intersectionality. They bring together disparate ideas into spaces for people to make meaning. They invite people to interface with complicated ideas. However, museum’s idea of intersectionality are often neutralized, devoid of the factors that particularly oppress people. Adding these lenses would be in keeping with the method of museums and bring museums closer to accomplishing their mission to understand collections wholly.

Basically, museum professionals, across the hierarchy, need to want to change. Then, they need to seek out training. Thinking about collections this ways is almost like being asked to see the invisible friend that has been in the room all the time.  Just as Big Bird finally got the folks on Sesame Street to see the Snuffleupagus, trainers can help staff see the elephants in your galleries. What happens when you see the elephant? Will it be a circus? Maybe. Or maybe, it will be a fantasia of meaning-making full of visitors.

01 Jun

Museums and the Ally Position

On May 31, 2017, a noose was found in the National Museum of African American for History and Culture. Previously, another similar device was found in a tree outside the Hirshhorn.

Both institutions are part of the Smithsonian, our national museum system whose collections are part of our national holdings. These institutions collect and preserve our collective history and project our best future. They are the place of so many field trips and family moments. Millions of visitors, both Americans and our guests, walk through their halls to be educated, entertained, rejuvenated, and regaled. Everyday, these institutions share the best of our nation for anyone who wants to enter their hallowed halls.

The placement of these implements of death feels like an attack on the best of this nation, on our collective intellectual culture. For museum professionals, it feels like an attack, as if the fear-mongering of the real world has impinged upon our sacred ground.  Yet, remember, museums are not just hallowed halls, immune to history. Museums are not neutral. Museums are spaces in which choices are made. Objects are nominated as important; certain stories are left aside in lieu of others. Acts like this serve to remind us that when museums challenge the status quo, it makes people uncomfortable. It makes some people angry.

How should we respond to this anger? First, and foremost, by remembering, that for some people this attack is much more than an attack on their field/ work. The noose is a symbol of oppression in our society, certainly. But, for African-Americans, it is not solely a symbol. The noose is their lived history. People alive today remember lynchings, very well. This is not ancient history. For black museum professionals walking into work today, this is more than theory. Someone chose to make a threat at a museum; it does not feel empty. So, first and foremost, we as a field need to respond to this anger by allowing our African-American colleagues to react. We need to be okay with their anger, with their sadness, with their emotions. Let their feelings be the center of this conversation. As allies, that should be our first, and most important step.  Amplify their voices.

Then, continue to do hard work. I often think museum challenges to the status quo are so subtle, non-museum people are completely unaware of our glacial movements towards relevancy. Acts like this give me hope that the field is challenging the status quo in appreciable ways. Of course, these heinous acts also signal the huge challenges that face museums and society in general in the fight towards an empathetic and equitable society.

So, today, as you talk about this, or think about this, keep up the fight, but just remember this fight is more than academic for some of among us. The noose is a tool of death, a reminder than for some in our society, life can be stolen on the altar of hate.