31 Oct

Labels in the World of Information Overload (Blog / Graphics )

  • From the museum point of view, they help audience connect to collections
  • Visitors differ in their needs by sector.
  • Designing one label for multiple audiences is impossible
  • Visitor evaluation will help evolve labels to meet new needs
  • Digital content needs to be a priority and purpose-built

While text abounds in museums, the most ubiquitous element of text, the label, is a particularly challenging element in terms of literacy shifts. The label is more likely to be read than any other text in an installation.

Having written literally hundreds and hundreds of labels in my tenure, I have spent a great deal of time thinking of these little bits of text. I spent time trying to cram everything in. I have then moved to pulling out 2-3 good ideas. I have played with the literary labels, descriptive labels, and humorous labels. I have cried about labels (well, not cried, but moaned certainly.)

In earlier eras, when text and knowledge were not omnipresent, labels could offer a single lens look at the art. In the age before phones, labels had little competition as purveyors of knowledge. But, now, visitors are standing next to that bit of vinyl choosing to read your text or use their phone to get information.

What are labels for?

From the point of view of the museum, the label helps the visitor know what the object is and then gain at least one access point. R.J. Loomis suggested that labels are a way to “bridge the knowledge gap” in a 1983 article about the Denver Art Museum (cited here).

Labels are the voice of the museum when a person isn’t standing there. A good interpretation plan, and planner, can do well to consider the idea questions to answer. In my time in museums, we have made several positive changes. Interpretation folks and some curators are doing better at writing in an accessible way, above the vernacular but below the scholarly. We are doing better at using ideas to make people feel smart while not using highfalutin language that makes them feel dumb. We are doing better at helping the whole field work on labels that work for visitors, from the V&A’s label guidelines or the Te Papa’s extensive label and exhibition guidelines.  

In my nearly two decades of label-writing, I have held many truths sacred. For example, I have always used Beverly Serrell’s ten commandments including make it short and sweet and start with a visual reference as benchmarks for my writing.  Like most label writers, I have wanted to find a way to take an idea that I feel is important about the object and make it into something relevant for the visitor.

Each collection object is really a locus of ideas.  The label writer (curator or educator) tries to choose a lens that would increase the appreciation of the object but can be explained in 100 words or less. This is an awesome task, taken in the original sense of the word. You have so many facets you might choose. Even in exhibition labels, where you have a meta-narrative to frame your writing, you have so many possible items to choose as the subject of your label. 

In the best-case scenarios, you, label writer, do your best. You use your professional experience. You also think about your audience. But, here in lies a major challenge for museums. We have different audiences for our labels. Our donors, other scholars and power users of museums have very different needs than our general audiences. Here is a situation where the disparity in the audience needs to be considered when developing a solution.

What is the role of the label from the point of the visitor?

First and foremost, they are looking for a label. The word itself is useful. Outside a museum when you label something, you mark that object with a textual description. Imagine finding a sealed box in your home with the label, “Boxes of this type were well-known in previous period as containing toxic and noxious materials.”

Infrequent visitors might seek labels as they are unfamiliar with the objects. But, similarly, they will be more likely to stop using them if they don’t meet their expectation.  They are hoping to find more about that thing:

  • They might have a question in mind that they hope to have answered.
  • They might want to learn a little
  • They might just want help “getting it”

In other words, their needs are broad. You can’t do it all for them on the paper label.

Looking at it we have a good number of people (Infrequent and regular visitors), who have a need for fairly general information. Within that group, you have a small portion that is especially unlikely to know your norms. This small group, infrequent visitors, is incredibly important. In design, they often say design for the extremes. In other words, pay special care to the people who have special needs, and everyone will feel special. So, when you work hard to make sure your labels meet these infrequent visitors, your regular visitors will win.

But, now to the challenge. Here is one situation when the extremes have drastically different needs. Your labels cannot easily meet both the needs of infrequent visitors and the frequent visitors concurrently. The power-user wants deep, specific information. The majority of the audience want broad, general information. If you use your label for both of these audiences, you are not going to meet the needs of either audience. Your infrequent visitor will be turned off by the depth and your frequent visitor will feel disappointed or even that you are condescending to them.

And, herein is a bigger problem, who are you designing for? You are designing for an audience that consumes more content and more quickly.

What technology have to do with labels? 

First, labels can’t exist in a vacuum. The challenge becomes when the institution’s voice doesn’t address what visitors are asking. That paper label cannot address every question that the visitors are asking.  Labels need to respond to the fact that visitors are different. As we started this post, they are standing there with their phone in hand, and yet choosing to read what you offer. Are you responding to their generosity in-kind? Are you trying to give them what they need or what you need?

The label now needs to evolve. We need to better understand why people are choosing to walk over to that label. A 2015 New York Times article hailed the growing importance of labels (and digital text) and pointed to the many schools of thought on labels.   Yet, the article didn’t point out something important–we really need to align our labels with the changes in how visitors use text.  We need to do the work to research this essential problem. Earlier studies suggest that people use labels, but these studies need to be updated.  We need to see what the culture of skimming means for labels. Maybe we need more text? Maybe we need bullets?  Maybe we need links to broad sources online? I have no idea because I am not the average museum visitor. That is why we as a field cannot answer this without visitors evaluation.

When labels don’t keep in touch with the real world, visitors will notice the lapse. For example, the fates deemed that the “Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. should run currently with Bill Cosby’s alleged sexual misconduct trials. Visitors enjoying the artwork also had to confront a quote by the man who was being discussed on every news channel as a rapist. Given the length of planning, those labels were edited and printed long before the news broke. The poor installer who was carefully making sure the label was square could not have known of the prosecutors’ careful work on the Cosby indictments. But, either way, once the news broke, they put a disclaimer on the website but retained the print label. In other words, they wanted to maintain the “curatorial sanctity” of the gallery and displaced the real issues to the virtual sphere.  Projecting authority and neutrality is problematic for the museum and visitors. For the museum, neutrality obfuscates continuing scholarship. For the visitors, this causes confusion and/or results in eventual distrust of the museum.

Visitors are now very used to technology as their consumption method for ideas.  So first and foremost, it frees the label from being the only form of communication. Many museums have jumped on this pleasure, diverting content to other digital tools. However, now, our audiences have become discerning.  This means that we need to do much better with text:

  • We need to develop purpose-built text for digital tools. They are not labels. They are not being used by the people who use a label. They are for the power-users.
  • We need to understand that numbers aren’t the key to making decisions about content. Even if the pick up for digital might be a subset of the general audience, they consume at a high level. They also allow museums to share their greatest asset, their knowledge to a great degree.
  • Put time and money into digital writing. It matters a lot to the consumers. These consumers know bad digital writing.
  • Learn what good digital writing means. This is essential. Digital text is not just a digital label. Work with the whole team to understand good digital writing. Museum staff often consume very different types of writing than their audiences.

This is the second in a series of posts about considering Interpretation and Content to Meet Today’s Visitor’s Needs.

Previous Post:

Are Museums Writing for Today’s Audience? Looking at the Changes in Literacy & Knowledge-Creation in Society


26 Oct

The Inclusive Museum : The Ideal State of Being for a Museum


The Japanese concept of Ikigai has been rolling around the Internet. The graphic describes when you are in the ideal state of being by balancing various states of work, life, meaning, and hope. The concept is either aspirational or depressing depending on your circumstances. The image did get me thinking. The museum has two important types of work: caring & sharing. How can you develop a balance that is ideal for visitor?

How can the idea of the ideal state of being be translated to the work of a museum? 

From Exterior to Interior:

This graphic helps show how the ideal museum, one that centers visitors, can balance its many roles and responsibilities. At the farthest edge, there are the core roles of the museums. Its worth noting that Impart was a term that I agonized over. Impart can sound negative, but I couldn’t quite think of a word that included: Teach, Share, Communicate, and Instruct.  Learn might be surprising as well, as you might see it as a visitor function. But, truthfully, good museums are constantly learning from visitor evaluation, tech workflow improvements, and object research.

The next tier, moving inward, are the modes that roles are implemented.

The next tier is why the museum uses those modes. Notice this tier moves from nouns to verbs. The museum ideally does something to elicit a reaction in the visitor.

Finally, the best museum experience is multi-faceted, drawn from the core competencies of the museum, but mounted in ways that are focused on the visitor.

24 Oct

Are Museums Writing for Today’s Audience? Looking at the Changes in Literacy & Knowledge-Creation in Society

Evolution of Knowledge Acquisition

When our visitors walk into their museums, they will have already consumed a great deal of information and fast at a rate of, on average, 23 words per second.  Over the course of a day, people read an average 105,000 words.  They walk into your museum, only to use text to find the bathroom, learn about your collection, and find their way to the exit.  But, are museums textual practices keeping up with the literacy changes of our visitors?

Quick History of Knowledge Acquisition

  • Move from oral to print increases sphere of influence
  • Mass production is partnered with mass consumption of text
  • Technology exponentially increases not only production of but also access to text

When it comes to social change, there are usually two camps: it was better before and it is now wondrous. In terms of knowledge sharing, you might think that we are living in the moment before the mass extinction of books, just waiting for one more meteor from the tech sphere. You might instead think that we are finally in the great democratic (small d) age of knowledge. Either way, it might be useful to step down the historical path of literacy and knowledge sharing.

Knowledge in the early days was transmitted orally. Writing systems were implemented,  effectively separating the words from the speaker/ writing and thereby making ideas highly mobile. Early writing survives on pots and tablets.  And, while mobile, these writing documents were handmade and heavy. Pity the horse asked to transport a set of texts over a hill.

Scrolls helped with the weight of things. Even the most ornery, old mule could take one scroll to the next city-state. But, the codex, or spined-book, changed things. These stackable communication tools could be filled with dissertations and novelizations.  Books were then further improved in as mass media tools with the onset of printing.

Printing changed knowledge forever. Ideas whizzed out of machines in broadsheets, newspapers, pamphlets, posters, and books. Knowledge was now mass media, multi-format, and myriad. Finally, technology took up the charge from printing. Early website information was present in certain situations, like from desktop computers in homes, (remember that iconic buzz of the landline connection?) Smartphones, like the iPhone launched in 2007, meant that knowledge was in your pocket or hand all the time. The smartphone allowed you to get blogs, tweets, feeds, and all the other Web 2.0 tools continuously and continually.

Web 2.0 & Social Media: Faster, Shorter, and MORE

  • User-generated/ change in authority structure
  • High-volume text consumption
  • Writing and reading styles have changed

Web 2.0 with its social media tools made knowledge-work a global activity, hobby, or obsession, depending on where you stand. Everyone is writing all the time. This user-generated content has changed the power structures of knowledge. Users (i.e. readers) are making text to disseminate their ideas. Authority became dispersed being partially displaced from institutions to individuals. This dissemination of authority can be seen as a flowering of democratic knowledge-work or, alternately, an erosion of quality in knowledge-work. While this debate is beyond the topic at hand, those acquiring knowledge are basically reading on the front-line of this authority debate. Readers confront this question with every text that they read. For every like or retweet, they are endorsing the authority of the writer.

And, they are making these assessments in record time. Knowledge is being made faster than ever. An average 1.2 million words are added to Twitter every minute. This is 18 Billion words every day. Almost four TRILLION words every month. And, that is on a single platform. Add all the text your mom is writing about you on Facebook, the captions on Instagram, the food blogs, the comments on those food blogs about the problems with the recipes, the comments on FB posts… You get the point. You live the point. Text inundates readers daily. Rather than being overwhelmed, many are willingly accessing and responding to this text. People are reading more, even as they are reading fewer books. Longform literary texts, with 1000 pages to get to the denouement, has a smaller audience, but short bites are on the rise. In other words, rather than being on the decline, literacy is shifting.

Social media and Web 2.0 texts have changed readers. They expect short and sweet. That said, the long text doesn’t immediately turn them off. They are skimmers. You don’t think so? With the changes in readers, texts and writing are changing.  Look at this text. Its constructed for the skimmers amongst us. There are bold headings, like road signs, for the speeding readers. For the super-fast reader, there will be some quick bullets at the end.  So, why am I putting in all this text, then? b/c you are all looking for something different. In order word, long-form texts are being created to support the diversity of audiences and their differential interests. (Also, age-old norms are changing. Abbreviations are being the norm.)

Transformations in Knowledge-seeking

  • Knowledge seeking is easier than ever
  • Knowledge resources are wide, deep, diverse, broad, and ever-present
  • Knowledge seeking is often broad rather than deep

Along with literacy shifts, Web 2.0 tools have transformed knowledge-seeking. When was the last time you flipped through an encyclopedia to figure out the name for that line that separates two dates in a range? (En-dash, by the way). Now, as a museum/ knowledge worker, you are probably more predisposed to use physical/ analog texts to find answers, but even knowledge-workers Google things. This shift is important in the museum setting. Your viewers know how to look up textual facts. They can find out where Rembrandt was from if they care. They know how to figure out the definition of tempera, and where to watch a video of egg tempera being made. Facts are available to everyone. And, while you might see yourself as the purveyor of the real, verifiable facts, your visitors are also very good at finding answers (and they might have a different idea about what a verifiable fact is).  Your visitors, if motivated, can find any fact they need, but this increased ability to fact-find is not necessarily matched with a concomitant growth in critical reasoning.

The flip-side of this phenomena is that for every museum collection there is a web niche. So, there are knowledge-makers online creating the counterpart to everything. You have a collection of decorative objects, including Wedgewood salt shakers. Look up salt and pepper shakers. You will see an amazing world of savory dec arts. You are a natural history museum with skulls and bugs. Well, I assure you that you have scores of Instagram accounts that would pair nicely with your collection. In other words, you aren’t the only one out there. This phenomenon can be taken in two ways by museums, as an erosion of uniqueness or alternately, and more positively, as an expansion of their community.

What are the implications for Museums?

  • The short version: People are reading more, finding facts all the time, and being inundated with text. Museums need to understand these changes to make better text.

As a society, we are not the readers we were in 2007. This is not a value judgment. This is not about caring less about collection objects. This is about idea dissemination. People are getting info in a different way.

Before you attempt to bemoan the diminished state of knowledge today. Every generation has had some type of knowledge acquisition transition. And, those who are living through these changes are often completely unaware when cognition slowly changes accordingly.

You really only notice the giant jumps, like going back to a long-ago time period. Even the most scholarly of us might find listening to an oration of the Mahabharata for 12 hours or so a little overwhelming. You are not inherently dumber or smarter than the original audience that could sit through that Indian tale of duty. We are trained by society to acquire information. Information that is transmitted in the social vernacular will be more easily acquired. Said differently, people learn as society has trained them to; teach differently or they might not learn.


How do we give museum visitors what they want and need in terms of text? 

Begin by ensuring that the text is suitable for the delivery method. Social media often is entertaining, short, and timely whereas labels are site-specific, informative, and evergreen.

With our visitors becoming savvy information consumers, we need to spend more time and research money on evolving the all our textual information so that our knowledge-ecosystem works for our visitors. We need to be strategic about ideas and knowledge-dissemination. We need to work holistically on the text as a form of access and inclusion. It is imperative, as a field, that we spend time researching labels and think about innovating at that most basic element of our knowledge-ecosystem. If we don’t, our visitors, best case, will just Google it, or worse, stop coming.

17 Oct

Museums have a Problem with Fun (Data)

Museums need visitors. Anyone who flips through an annual report or glances on a website can attest to that fact. But, how do you get them there?

You entice them, of course. But, how do you do that? I can share how I did that. When I used to run programs, I would try to show “fun” through the publicity photos and in the description of the activities. But, saying something was fun always seemed a signal that the experience was anything but. If you need to say is fun, it probably really isn’t.

How do Americans define fun?

This is a challenging question. Ask your best friend, and you might find you differ in your responses. But, looking at spending trends helps form a picture of how society, as a whole, uses their well-earned leisure money and helps us begin to define fun.

Leisure can be defined as an activity that you choose to do for enjoyment.

Since the 1960’s people are working less, and spending almost 7 extra hours a week on leisure.  Similarly, people are spending more money now than they were 50 years ago on leisure. People spend nearly $2500 annually on leisure compared with $850 in 1960.  In other words, leisure is a growth proposition.

Americans spend real money in order to engage in leisure. For example, they spent 100 Billion dollars on sporting-related leisure in 2016.   They spend more than a third of their discretionary income on restaurants.  In 2015, Americans spent an average of $46 per year on arts and culture activities.

According to the American Time Use Survey, on any given weekend (in descending order of time spent), people watch tv, socialize, play sports, relax and think, read, play on the computer, and play games. The range is from 200 minutes of television watching to under 10 for game playing.  (Visual breakdowns offer some stark depictions of the relative scale of each activity.)

Expectedly, perhaps, but the childless have more time for leisure. And, despite education-level,  people do some type of leisure activity every day. In other words, everyone is doing some regularly that’s fun.

Drilling down a bit, what makes these activities enjoyable?

There’s variation, as well, there is variation in people. Some are of these activities are individual and others are collective. Some are within the home and some are outside. Some are affordable and others have great costs. In other words, fun has a great deal of variation. Fun purveyors might only fit in one of these niches, like books which are solitary. But, many fall into various niches.

What connects these activities?   On the whole, they are active and engaging. But, they are also activities where the norms and expectations are clear. Once you learn to read, you don’t need someone to help you engage with a book.  Once you make a friend, you don’t need a list of rules on how to talk to them. Going out to a movie needs a ticket, but not a docent/ intercessor. (See Graphics at the end for details on each of these activities.)

What does this have to do with museums? 

At a time in history where people have more time for leisure, museums attendance is in decline. This negative growth is really a global phenomenon. In the UK, BBC did a study that found that major art museums (National Gallery and Tate) lost 20% of their British audience in a five-year period up to 2014. The NEA found that museum attendance dropped in the US over last decade. 

The competition is steep. People can find plenty of fun at home. As the New York Times wrote in a 2016 article, staying home is the new going out.  More than 50 percent of American’s regularly order food in. Television-watching is the most common leisure activity.

In other words, there is a threshold that must be met to entice people out of their houses. And, this where we circle back to the idea of fun. Fun is about being with people and feeling comfortable doing it.

LaPlacaCohen recently released a report, CultureTrack about Arts and Culture participation. The number one motivator  for arts and culture participation, a staggering 81%, was “fun.”   Over one-third (37%) didn’t see art museums as a cultural experience. (How many art museum people would it as a cultural experience). The Culture Track also helps develop a picture on what types of experiences draw people. And what did they think was fun? They enjoyed experiences that were outside of traditional institutions, like public art.  They see cultural experiences as interactive & collective. They want to be engaged rather than just receiving information.

People want leisure that doesn’t require onboarding, that isn’t going to make them feel out of place, and that isn’t hard. They want experiences that engage through content that is real and interesting. In other words, culture shouldn’t be hard; it should be fun.

Why do museums need to work so hard to get people to feel included in their spaces? 

Recently, I was chatting with a friend who works at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. This is a museum that has really made an effort to model and act fun in their spaces and programs. She was sharing her successes at serving as an ambassador to community members. She mentioned that the best community ambassador has a certain amount of built-in obsolescence. Once you get people connected to the museum, they don’t need you anymore.  On that score she is right. And, I have no doubt that she does a great job.

But, I asked her, and I ask you, what other leisure experience has ambassadors actively trying to get people to see the space as theirs. I mean–is the NFL really working super hard to get people to see that sitting in freezing temperatures, drinking beer with your friends, and yelling at men in tights is fun?

What are we doing wrong? 

One big thing is that we fundamentally don’t project “fun”. Think of the ways that we think of our spaces and our exhibition programs. We start with considering scholarly attributes and see how the idea blends the existing museum norms. We don’t start with the visitor.

Now, exhibition folks out there will say that they try to put in a few blockbusters every year. In other words, we look back at things that worked in our paradigms that drew visitors to get more of those same visitors.

This disconnection deals with some fundamental challenges:

  • Museums people, personally, often have a rarified or specialized sense of “fun”
  • Museums often see fun at odds with scholarship
  • Museums see “fun” as being for children
  • Museum spaces are meant to serve as both individual and social spaces; the fun norms can be drastically different and oppositional
  • Museums don’t make their rules and norms clear so people don’t know how to have fun there
  • Museums focus on content-transmission rather than experiences

How can museums be more fun? 

This is a billion dollar question (ask the sporting industry). If you manage this, you won’t be crossing your fingers on the blockbusters. You will be drawing new people who are willing to put on pants and leave their couch. You get new people. You will find those people that you are always wondering about (the non-museum-goers.)

And as LaPlacaCohen notes, our potential visitors are “necessitating a reassessment of experiences and services offered.”

You need to:

  • First, let’s not fake it. Don’t write fun in any add you write for your museum.
  • Spend time understanding what people actually this is fun. This can be going to Yayoi Kusuma but it can also be sitting down with friends. Don’t use yourself as the ruler for fun. Really look into other industries.
  • Use the lens of fun as a way to measure the relative value of programs.
  • Don’t demean play and fun in your own planning and thinking. Stop using the phrase, just a play space or just for people who want fun.
  • Center play in your own practice. Make fun part of your work. People can tell when you are bored.

(Also, why Americans? What about international readers? Well, friends, fun is relative and cultural. While somethings go across many societies, like alcohol, others are highly culture-specific. For example, never seen anyone from England posting about going to their alma mater’s home-coming football came while painted in their team’s colors head to toe.)

Addendum: Breakout on Leisure Activities.



15 Oct

Bill of Rights for Museum Visitors

Museum visitors have rights.

Museums are storage lockers without visitors. And, visitors have certain rights.


Visitors have:

The right to wander at will,

The right to feel smart,

And the right to demand NOT to be made to feel stupid.


They have the right to spend hours

or look at ONE thing and leave.


They have the right to be near the art, to touch the interactive, to look really close at the butterfly wing—when those collection objects are under glass.

When they are not under glass, they have the right to look pretty close at collection objects. Remember, museums are inviting them in. Trust them!


They have the right to go “backward” in exhibitions (as long as they don’t impinge on the rights of other visitors).

They have the right to miss the tour.

They have the right to take the tour and walk away, just because.

They have the right to share their feelings about the tour.


They have the right to disagree, to not care, or to agree.


They have the right to hate what we have on the walls.


They have the right to just listen, to ask, to share, to question.

Again, they have the right to question.

They have the right to ask and question when their story isn’t included.

They have the right to notice when museums are doing it wrong.


They have the right to see the museum space as a place to relax,

to learn,

to walk when it’s cold outside,

to meet a friend and to go for a drink,

to go for a drink,

to meet a date,

to avoid a date,

to get a bite to eat,

to hear a concert,

to find a quiet place to relax,

to read a book,

to ignore all the museum’s darn labels,

to listen to EVERY stop on the audiotour,

to learn about stuff they forgot from school,

to bring their kids,

to feel,

to run from kids.


They have the right to not be followed, to not be started at, to not be questioned by guards.

They have the right to feel trusted.

For more on trust in museums, see my blog post, Trust the Revolution, which includes my MuseumNext talk by the same name or watch the video below:

Trust the Revolution from MuseumNext on Vimeo.

12 Oct

Inclusive Interpretation Tips #museums

In my recent #MuseumNext Talk, I spoke about trust. Trust isn’t something you offer blindly. It takes practice and effort. In museums, in order to include visitors into the trust equation, we need to up the game on our interpretation. We need to move from anonymous authority to informed communicator. This requires some major shifts in the way we think about objects. Often, curatorial practices invite singular narratives focused on exemptionalism. Life is anything but singular. Our objects, with their own lived-histories all, certainly cannot be understood with singular narratives. Flattened interpretation not only excludes visitors but also lets our collections down.

What’s the solution? Diversity isn’t just a problem in the people in museums, it’s also a huge problem in how we think of collections. We need to surface the plural histories that live within our collections. Each object has a long history with layers of stories, like an onion that we need to help people peel away.

Why? Well, the more stories that we expose about our collections, the more types of people who will feel connected to the collections. And, don’t worry. Visitors are okay–trust they will be okay with newer types of stories.

In a practical way, it means finding what is not in the interpretation we offer.  We need to do this on the object level and on the exhibition level. Now, this is easier said than done for some institutions. We have been trained to streamline language and hone in on our theses. We are better academic powerhouses than cultural interpreters.   So, this is in part about going back to the essentials like Why, How, Who, and What.  You are looking for what is not there.

Ideally, this is a practice that you take up as a team, as each of you will see different lost elements.Tools like these seem juvenile, like school handouts, but something this simple can help you focus on your ideas and point you in the right direction.

But, if your team is not diverse, you might not even know what you are missing. So, then what? Obviously, diversify your team. But, what else? Find help: listen to talks; ask people outside the interpretation team; ask visitors; bring in consultants.

10 Oct

Trust the Revolution

Museums need a revolution of trust.

The word trust is a common one in the museum field, embedded in mission statements and uttered by venerable directors.  However, in both instances, museums use the word most commonly in terms of their holdings.  Museums keep collections in trust for people.  Spend a moment considering that language. Museums hold important artifacts of history, human or natural, for us.  In other words, like a trust fund, the collection is kept safe and protected, for the next generation of beneficiaries.  This is, of course, commendable. Collections are often the body of museums. However, collections are not the soul of museums—ideas are.  These ideas are brought to collections by people: curators, educators, and visitors, amongst others.  Here lies the crux of so many challenges in this sector.  Trust is something that museums offer their collections, but don’t offer much of their staff or their visitors.  Without that trust, the people involved in museums cannot bring their best ideas to the fore, leaving collections poorly activated.

The issue of trust is at the center of many of the internal problems of museums. Executive staff, busy with responsibility, often cosset themselves away from visitors leaving lower level staff charged with attempting to translate the real concerns of patrons to the higher echelons. Such trickle up relationships can work if lower level staff are afforded trust by their superiors. Trust could be expressed through face time, decision-making power, salary scale, and/or credit for work.

The dearth of trust in museums extends to their relationships with visitors. Museums often do not express trust in visitors in their spatial and cultural norms.  Instead of trust, we project fear to visitors.  We fear them with our collections. Think of the deportment of guards. These museum professionals have the greatest face time with our visitors; yet they are often trained to project a restrained, if not punitive, attitude.

The lack of trust in our visitors is also expressed in the way that collections are interpreted. Permanent collection galleries use labels with often illegibly small font and inscrutable text. Exhibitions are allowed greater latitude in general, due to their temporary nature. In other words, in general, visitor-centered interpretive and design norms can only occur in museums in the places that do not create permanent change to the culture.  While some museums solicit visitor feedback, the change to our field is incremental. Said differently, we do not trust the change our visitors might advocate. Sure, we might have an exhibition that has a Post-it note talkbacks. But, this type of change is barely noticeable to a visitor who has lived through the whirlwind of technological changes that are the essence of contemporary society.  Herein is a major factor of fear; visitors might want something that is totally different than what museums do.

The lack of trust offered to staff and visitors have massive ramifications for our field.  Staff burnout and turnover is a problem.  In fields where external jobs have better pay, like technology and marketing,  staff leave and take their field-knowledge. In other fields, like education, staff stagnate and wither. The staffing challenges then are translated into visitor experiences that do not embody trust.  Visitors in turn often feel uncomfortable in our spaces; they can tell we don’t trust them.  Visitors move into other leisure experiences.

In the end, if our collections are held in trust. then our visitors are our constituents, a relationship not unlike a voter to an elected representative. And, just as a senator who has broken his trust with his voters can be voted out, people vote with their actions in the museum sphere.  Our attendance is decreasing. In other words, increasingly people are choosing not to trust us with their time. Visitorship is already skewed demographically towards wealth and whiteness, and rather than diversifying our visitors, those wary of being profiled are less likely to visit.

So, what are we going to do to earn their trust?  We need to change our whole culture, from the way we treat our staff to the way we treat our visitors.  We need to face our fears of change. We need to trust that the people who want to participate in our culture (from lower level staff to general visitors) have a personal stake in our success.  We need to express our trust with systemic change, rather than peripheral amendments.

Without these fundamental changes in the structure of museums, currently focusing trust and transparency on a small set of our culture (the executive team and board), the work we do is less than optimum.  We can’t speak of political movements and yet remain immune to them.  A trust-based model means that more people share the decision-making, but then that also means more people share the ownership. This trust revolution, and with its concomitant, and required, decrease in fear of change, would transform museums from places that hold collections in trust for people to places that trust people with collections.

So How Will We Do This? 

First, you need to think about trust itself. Trust is a moment of vulnerability and two-way connection. Trust takes honesty and courage. You lose something certainly, power particularly. But, you also gain, empathy and connectedness.  In the end, you find yourself amongst people who feel a connection to you. You are in other words insulated by their trust in you.

In terms of museums, there are three keys: trust collections, visitors, and staff.  We are going to focus on the people because we are really good at trusting the collection.

Let’s start with Visitor

When of the biggest challenges of trust come when the visitor meets the collection. Many objects cannot be handled. Explain why or better show why touching objects can often lead damaging those pieces. They know that we don’t trust them. They can tell. Visitors don’t feel comfortable in our spaces, and our spaces are generally almost purposefully uncomfortable. Don’t think so? Just look for a comfortable seat in a museum gallery.

So what are some ways we can turn this culture of distrust around?

  1. Share don’t tell. (Be open in your interpretation. Allow people to come to their own conclusions.)
  2. Make the visitor a co-steward in the welfare of the collection. (Think of the difference between snapping, “don’t touch” and mentioning “we need to keep this safe.”)
  3. Believe they can handle difficult topics. (Ignorance of a certain topic is not stupidity in general. They were smart enough to enter the museum :>)
  4. Be open to multiple ways that visitors may approach the collection.
  5. Be more thoughtful in the ways your guards connect to visitors. (Empower guards to be kind.)
  6. Make your spaces less inscrutable. (Don’t make them feel lost.)

And now Staff

Museums are, however, inherently hierarchical. So, trust can be parsed out by where the other person stands in relation to you.

To your superiors

  1. Find ways to share what you really think. (Test the waters will small moments to see if you can trust them.)
  2. Be sociable. (Take this one slowly. Feel them out.)
  3. Work hard and show your work. (Let them know you don’t magic your deliverables.)
  4. Question kindly. (Don’t just disagree so you can. And, ask in ways that don’t sound personal.)
  5. Don’t say anything about them that you wouldn’t say to them. (That said, find a way to let out your negative feelings, say journaling, telling spouse, voodoo doll (?))

To your peers

  1. Share your ideas. (They might steal them. But, you have more ideas).
  2. Don’t personalize. (It’s not all about you.)
  3. Help them. (Open doors. Share Pens. Pick up the slack.)
  4. Be on their team, even if you are in different divisions. (Listen, hear, and care.)

To your staff or those junior to you:

Trust in one’s staff begins with valuing the staff. Trust goes both ways. Here are concrete steps in developing trust in your workspace. Because there is a power differential between you and your staff they need to know that they can trust you.

Before you can trust your staff, you must set the conditions for a work culture that allows for or encourages trust.

  1. Train the staff to be good at their job. (Training takes time, money and effort, so make sure you plan for that).
  2. Set expectations then allow them to operate within those expectations. (Tell them what success looks like. If you don’t know, you are not leading.)
  3. Don’t micro-manage (If you really know how to do their job better; take that job instead).
  4. Voice concerns early before they fester. (Don’t tell them 6 months after they pissed you off. Also, why are you still angry after 6 months? You are the one who did nothing.)
  5. Give staff clear/ concise goals. (What do you want? They are not mind-readers.)
  6. Believe they know the best way to accomplish their job. (Don’t worry. They got this).
  7. Be transparent about decisions made that affect your staff. (I assure you they will guess on your motivations. Why waste their time?)
  8. Be honest about why you are asking for staff’s opinions. (is it for a show? Or do you really want to hear their opinion? Be honest if you don’t.)
  9. Know names. Use them. (They are human. Treat them that way.)  
  10. Be social. Be kind. (Don’t treat them as your inferiors, unless you want inferior work from them.)


Finally, and most importantly, show yourself trust. The more you can trust others with your true self, the more you will grow in the field. Know that you are doing your best. If you feel like you are not, then move yourself to the place, mentally, where you can.

What next?

If each person in the field picked four ways to add more trust in our field, four simple concrete items, we would start a revolution.  It’s a simple numbers game.  4 times everyone in this field, of 1.6 million more moments of trust. Over time, there would be an exponential shift in the culture of the field, in the way that visitors feel, and in the way that museums are perceived. The collections, a core defining feature, would remain as trusted as ever. But, instead of being part just housed in buildings, they would be surrounded by people who feel as trusted as the collections.

This is post is my summary of my MuseumNext USA talk in Portland. Thanks to them (Jim and Kala) for letting me share my ideas on that large stage.  To hear the talk, catch the video. 

03 Oct

The Role of Relevancy and Museum (Data)

The average American is exposed to more than 5,000 branded messages every day. These messages can be everything from the logo on your tea bag to the ads that run while you are streaming NPR. In this saturated environment, how do you choose what to consume? Research indicates that many consumers are carefully privileging socially-responsible brands. In a recent survey by Havas, 75% of consumers expect brands to contribute to their quality of life. In other words, people expect everything from Adobe to AT&T to have a meaningful impact on society.

This is the environment that museum patrons live in. They don’t leave that mindful brand mindset when they walk into the museum. There is the point of disconnection between museums and consumers. Consumers are barraged with tweets about NFL owners standing with their police-brutality protesting players and the political advertisements of beer companies. They walk into museums, often places with socially-responsible missions, and find sanitized, subtle messages of social consciousness.

Quite to the contrary, they choose to be museum patrons, effectively consumers of the museum’s brand, because they appreciate the contributions of the museum. While some might directly patronize a museum for its philanthropic or educational contributions, most often direct attendance (and the associated earned revenue) is based on interest. Those people are walking in, and spending their hard-earned cash, because they value something in the museum. Consumers have more choice than ever, often in their own homes. Consumers of these exhibitions want that experience, and they are choosing these spaces over other leisure options.

So, what do patrons want in terms of relevancy?

First, it’s important to note that “meaningful” is in the eye of the beholder.  Sometimes patrons want something that feels a certain way.  (I have more to say about transformation in museums here). Visitors want to engage in experiences rather than being observers in inert spaces. A recent article in Wired extolled the power of the Instagram-friendly museum or exhibition. (Yayoi Kusuma’s exhibition Infinite Mirrors might be the exemplar of this genre.) These types of exhibits are relevant in their experiential nature; just as media is becoming ever more interactive, so are these exhibit spaces.

But, those types of experiences are the rare example not the norm for museums.  What about the 98% of other museum experiences to be relevant? Most museums have collections that they preserve and share. How do they highlight their collections for a populous that privileges meaningful impact? This summer I invited professionals to share their ideas about if and how museum collections should address social issues. The following discussion draws on the ideas of the 116 respondents.

Should museums engage in social issues? 

The vast majority of respondents felt that museums should tackle social issues and contemporary issues.  Very few respondents said no.  But, look more closely at the “maybes.” This was a sizable minority of responses.  There were more respondents on the fence about presenting social issues. In other words, museums should engage with the present moment, but maybe not with the social issues of this moment.  This highlights a real challenge in the field–we want to be relevant but maybe remain out of the fray on social issues.  This is in opposition to what our patrons expect and experience outside the museum where brands are engaging in social issues.

Exploring the qualitative responses helps understand the nuances of these answers. In many ways, the “maybe” camp comes from a desire to remain collection-centered.   Museums need to use their mission and their collection as their compass to make choices on how they deal with social issues.

When asked why museums should deal with contemporary and social issues, a number of people cited the fact that museums are social constructs and far from neutral.

  • “Museums have a responsibility to not exist in a bubble. By nature, museums are a reflection of the community it is in. And it needs to reflect that in all aspects.”
  • Museums are part of the fabric of the community and in order to engage the community, we must address their issues.
  • “To remain neutral is to enable oppression. If a museum doesn’t say something, the silence says it for them.”

Many people felt that museums needed to respond to social issues due to their mission.  

  • “Education is a prime function of museums”
  • “Tying the present to the past is a vital activity and contained in the heart of the museum mission”

Engaging in social and contemporary topics goes beyond the mission—it is the ethical prerogative of museums to engage in this service.

  • “Museums have power.”
  • “Museums should find valuable connections between contemporary topics and their core values and mission. They need to stay in service for their public/audience and their institution.”
  • “Because museums are already deeply connected with contemporary and newsworthy topics. By not “dealing” with them we’re choosing not to engage the very people many of our institutions are tasked to engage more of!”

Some professionals noted that this move to relevancy was not selfless. As noted above, people are walking into museums with certain cultural expectations. Shying away from social relevance puts museums out of step with society. Engaging with contemporary topics and social issues was seen as a way to maintain current audiences as well as future-proof the museum.


This is the big question. There is really no one answer, as there is no one type of museum. Many of the respondents highlighted the social nature of museums. Museums have a special position in society to be able to engage in dialogue that is unlike any other type of institution; one that can put people at the interstices of many moments in history.

  • “Relevance to community, opportunity to present difficult complex issues in ways that invite reflection and possibly dialogue”
  • “I think it is important to stand for something and a museum is a place where those topics can be argued and given a platform”

Though many museum professionals were quick to point out that museums have to be thoughtful in their social conscious programming. They noted that museums, not unlike commercial brands, can come off as opportunistic when attempting to engage in social issues.

  • When they do it in thoughtful collection-centered ways, it expands the museums.
  • The engagement should feel authentic to the museum’s mission and personality. It should not come across as opportunistic or trendy.

Using the respondents as a sample, many museums are tackling social and contemporary issues in ephemeral, event-based ways like programs and social media, for example.  These kinds of incursions make sense on some level. With exhibitions often taking half a decade to plan, relevancy can be a hard goal. Programs are quick to plan and implement. However, they also often have a smaller reach in terms of audiences. They also offer museums a chance to do something without actually changing their status quo.

What should museums be doing? 

The short answer is more. Museums have a much smaller share of the public consciousness. Every staff member of your local art museum could do social justice programming, and still, their reach would be much smaller than one football player’s reach. That said, museums have more patrons annually than sporting events. This disparity is telling. We reach more people and yet we choose not to make waves.

  1. Museums need to speak out at the institutional level to use their power to make a change. Social media is a great way to do this but there are other ways like exhibition policy standing for change, directors marching in protests, and joint-statements for change. Here is a great example led by the Guggenheim to fight the immigration ban. 
  2. Museums need to center social issues into their exhibitions and permanent collection planning.
  3. Museums need to stand up to donors who might have political motives to prevent social issues from being addressed.
  4. Museum professionals need to advocate for big action, not just isolated programs.

Thanks to everyone who contributed to this data, by responding, forwarding, sharing, considering, etc. The anonymized raw data is available to anyone who would like to play. Just email me at seema (at) brilliantideastudio.com . The first blog post about this survey is here. 

Useful Associated Reading

Andrea Kim on the Culture Lab Manifesto

Anabel Roque Rodriquez’ article about museum neutrality

Anna Schwartz on museum neutrality

Importance of Protest Art