27 Feb

Interpretation : Focus on Tactile and Kinesthetics

In museum galleries, we signal ideas through a variety of ways. Collections are visible in the galleries. Interpretation adds more signals, like ancillary images, audiotours, and of course text. But, we also omit many stimuli. We often completely exclude two major forms of meaning-making, kinesthetic and tactile. What happens when we do this? And, what are ways that we can foster these senses?

 

 

Meaning-Making

Every moment of the day, awake or not, we make take in sensory information and make sense of the world. Some stimula are fairly direct. We smell a musty odor and match that to a memory of skunk smells. Other times, we receive information that has been translated by an individual (like you are reading about skunk smell now).

Most objects in museums are translations of phenomena. Fossils were once a living, breathing creature. Artworks might relate a concept, idea, or experience.  Look at the example above. An artist has created an image of a cat. Now, in understanding that object, you can use your senses. In museums, you will most likely not be able to touch it. You could listen to an audiotour, but you couldn’t be able to hear the sounds of striking it (ping) or dropping it (crash). Most likely you will need to use vision as your primary sense, either through looking at the object or reading the text (a translation of the object into text that the reader must interpret.)

 

 

Touch

In other words, in the vast majority of museum settings, visitors must rely on the mediation of the museum interpretation. They need to use visual sense as the primary source whereas in the rest of the world they use many more sources of information.

Humans have a distinct haptic system, where they use touch to reflexively seek and acquire information, even more quickly than with the sense of sight.  Many types of information are most easily ascertained through touch like hardness, temperature, pliability, weight. These topics can be learned through verbal communication, yet they are more easily ascertained if you just reach out your hand. People often act on this need to understand through touch before their rational senses take hold.

Touch can evoke memories but also quickly immerse people in new experiences.Touch is a type of learning that is often fostered in early childhood. Engaging in learning through touch is pleasurable.

 

 

Kinesthetics

Touch is not the only sense that people lose in the museum. Spatial and kinesthetic sensibilities are often challenging. Works are seen out of context. While the fossils of some dinosaurs are seen in its full forms, many bones might be framed in a case. Because of that, you can’t walk around the whole creature. You can’t understand your relative scale to this animal, for example.

Kinesthetic experiences allow learners to connect actions to ideas to develop deeper understandings of concepts and developing critical thinking efficiently. This connection of body and mind is called embodied learning, in which abstract ideas are made more salient when connected to concrete physical action. While kinesthetic learning is so important for meaning-making, this form of engagement is underrepresented throughout the educational ecosystem.

Kinesthetic learning has some important ancillary benefits. Experiences that foster learning through actions usually have a flexibility that encourages creativity, experimentation and problem-solving.  The sheer act of moving put learners in a position to see spaces and objects from a new perspective. In museums, ideally, kinesthetic learning should feel authentic and meaningful. And, kinesthetic learning also encourages collaborative action.

 

Authenticity

Streamlining to visual senses have major problems for visitors. Spatial and tactile learning can certainly help those with hearing and sight impairments, but these types of experiences empower everyone making collections more memorable for all. Together these senses can evoke emotions and encourage fascination.

The challenge for museums is that touch and kinesthetic action are natural ways that humans make meaning. The sense of touch is the easiest way to ascertain authenticity, for example. People are well aware when an experience feels inauthentic.  Museums need to be thoughtful, therefore, in the experiences they produce, for example, using high-quality replicas. When chosen appropriately, handling replicas or other materials can stimulate engagement.

Touch does not mean to wildly grab collections. Museums need to help visitors learn appropriate handling behaviors. Ideally, touch can be added into museum spaces without unleashing an avalanche of destruction. Reality-based interactions on tablets can offer some of the benefits as touching objects. While more research needs to be done, virtual touch does seem to be a real option.

21 Feb

The Regional Arts and Culture Ecosystem

No institution is an island. Understanding your part in the greater whole of your community can help, your organization find the best way to work in the community.

  • Large Single-Sited Institutions: ex. Museums
  • Multi-Sited Institutions: ex. School systems, Library systems
  • Event-Focused Organizations: ex. Reader/ Writing Events, musical festivals
  • Small Single-Sited Organizations: ex. Arts centers
  • Mobile/ Outreach Organizations: ex. teaching artist programs

Most organizations have a core competency. For example, a museum might have a housed-collection in a vast building downtown. They might then decide that connecting to the collection requires mobile outreach. However, their core competency is their sited space.  An efficient, thoughtful approach would be to partner with an organization that does outreach well.

Coalitions allow organizations to pool resources and gain the benefit of competencies they don’t naturally have. Additionally, the community wins exponentially. Remember, all the organizations are working together for the community (which is a more mission-driven approach than thinking that you are competing for audiences).  Understanding where you fit in the ecosystem is a useful way to find efficiencies, build audiences, and learn from adjacent fields.

 

20 Feb

What Museums Can Learn from the Black Panther

The stars of Black Panther including Zuri in purple carrying an impressive blade (Marvel’s Black Panther, 2018)

Taken from the Marvel Comic Books, the Black Panther is a movie about a fictional African nation that cloaks its advanced civilization as a form of self-preservation. The king of the nation has superhuman strength thanks to serious sumptuary success. The Black Panther’s trail to bring a bad guy to justice starts some even worse experiences for him and his nation.

1. Great story with POC doesn’t have to be about color
While the Black Panther mentions slavery, colonialism, appropriation, and the art market, they are in support of a great story. Certainly, the many challenges in the history of the African diaspora are worthy of exploring in film, as well as literature and exhibitions. But, people of color are not just the sum of the worst of their history. Black Panther told a great hero story, using all the elements of the character’s history, good and bad. But, this is a really an adventure romp.

In other words, don’t essentialize POC’s experiences in exhibitions or programming. Appeal to the whole people if you want their whole participation.

2. Market for Success
Disney put real money into the marketing, and their investment was returned by being the fifth biggest box office opening domestically.

Museums often split up their marketing with the smallest part going to education programs and diversity programs. And, then people don’t come. If these people are the hardest to get, you probably need to try the hardest to get them into your doors.

3. Synergy Sells
The Black Panther will be in the upcoming Infinity War, apparently. Most Black Panther audiences know this because the ad ran before the movie this weekend. Every person who liked this movie saw that. Some portion might even attend that movie as a result. That said, not every person in the theaters this weekend is a Marvel fan. Many came out to support a Black-led and performed film. But, the synergy is a classic Hollywood trick. Snag extra audiences by pushing products in existing audiences.

Museums often sell hard to a sector of an audience for specific exhibitions, like African-American audiences for an exhibition of Kerry James Marshall or young boys for an exhibition of Dinosaurs. That is good marketing sense. But, most museums can do better about cross-promotion. Look for ways that you might find connections to other parts of your collection. Offer them some connected ways to maintain a relationship with your organization’s collection. The Marshall attendees might love figurative painting. The Dinosaur boys might like whales. To find the best synergies think broadly, don’t essentialize people, and consider doing some evaluations of audiences about other interests.

4. Don’t Shy Away from the Hard Stuff
There is one scene in a museum where a woman (curator, marketing manager?) is standing in a gallery (with coffee!) nearly apoplectic when being accused of cultural piracy/ theft of artifacts. There are many tougher issues about race that are brought up in this movie, though woven into the narrative. I remind you that this is a Disney blockbuster movie being advertised during the Olympics.

Controversial issue and blockbusters don’t need to be in opposition. In fact, if you avoid controversial issues, you might find that you have alienated audiences making for a far-from-successful blockbuster.

5. Celebrate rather than Blind Yourself to Color
Disney worked to create a film within the Marvel universe that worked for the audience, and then made sure people knew what they were getting. It’s right in the name, “Black Panther”. This was not the African-American panther (not to mention he is meant to be from Africa). This story was pretty honest about race, but also matter of fact. From the advertising alone, no one thought that they were going to be seeing one or two black faces. But, at the same time, it was not just about race. You didn’t forget their color but you let the Black Panther, his enemies, his friends, and everyone else in Wakanda be their whole selves.

Museums in general still make the mistake of essentializing people of color, particularly black/ African-American people. Coded language flourishes in museums and museum culture. The word “diversity” in most museums means, not variation as it should, but instead moves to include black people or people of color in the museum ecosystem. This is a terribly bad way to grow audiences. You are basically inviting people in to change your demographic but not changing for them. What happens, then, is that you don’t have true change in museum demographics.

Black Panther showed that people of color will respond to quality entertainment that is more than about race as long as it doesn’t shy away from Race. Also, this was not a sneaky move to create a movie that had an almost all-black cast. This was all-out, right-on Black made and performed.

Museums can learn bringing people in, different people than you have now, requires real effort, real money, and a truthful product. After all, if you aren’t planning to go big, people will just stay home. Don’t believe me, ask the people who didn’t stay home this weekend.

And if you were here for the art, here are 12 artworks from cultures that inspired the Black Panther designers.

15 Feb

Vistor-Centered Interpretation

 

There is a symphonic aspect to exhibition and museum gallery planning. Many ideas come together to create something coherent and ideally pleasing to the audience.  Just as some music is appealing to only a few, and others hit the charts, some exhibitions and museum spaces work for more rarified audiences. That said,  museums can do better about understanding what types of ideas are broader audience-specific and what are for more rarified circles.  The challenge can be that museums focus too much on those items that are most interesting to the fewest people.

The graphic highlights the types of information on the scale of ease and impact. Ideally, museums should strive for balance. An exhibition with only top-level information (“the thing” in the graphic) might hit the broadest audience but will leave die-hard patrons cold. Similarly, an interpretation that only drills down will be irrelevant to the majority of visitors.  The grade-grey triangle above shows the relative amount of interpretation by category. The majority of their interpretation should be in the categories, “the thing” “the cool thing” and “the cool thing is like this thing I know.”  In these three categories, the museum is helping visitors find answers to the biggest questions and helping visitors make relevant connections.  In this way, they are centering the majority of visitors through interpretation.

13 Feb

Employee Engagement: Cultural Silos and Personal Ladders

Trends come and go in business. You might hear one person say in a meeting, “It’s all about stories.” And then all of a sudden every article in business journals and blogs are about stories. Breaking silos is a particularly fashionable phrase current.

Silos

Silos dot the countryside in much of the US. These tall structures which store grain are all about use and little loveliness. On farms, silos are vital structures, their utility is apparent in their form. They are functional. Their usefulness has made them ubiquitous. And, their need has not changed much. In other words, farmers had silos to hold grain, and they continue to use them to store grain.

In terms of organizational structures, silos be an apt metaphor. Just as silos contain a single type of grain, organizations develop departments based on functional capacity. In some way, organizational silos can be positive. Likeminded people have a short-form type of connection that can foster deeper connections and increased productivity.

 


Safe Incubators

Think of a moment when you are trying to figure out a problem at work, one that has made you pull at your hair. In that moment, you turn to a colleague who works in a totally different field. You spend so much energy trying to explain the problem, only for them to suggest an inane fix. Then you call someone who does what you do. In one sec, without giving you chance to waste breath on an explanation, they offer the right fix. They get it! You sigh relief and move onto the new task. Silos are good at helping you do what you are doing right now better.

But, why are articles allows agitating for the takedown of such vertical hierarchies? The silo doesn’t need a takedown; it’s the leaders.


Communication & Bridges

Silos only work if people make purposeful bridges out of the structure. Farm silos have only one point where grains can be removed.  Many workplaces take this metaphor seriously, allowing ideas to move in and out of the structure through a single upper-level person. Often, this plan is a result of a lack of trust in colleagues. The result is that information, access, credit, and goodwill stagnate at the top level of the silo, with the bottom of the hierarchy groaning under the weight. The bottom of any workplace hierarchy is usually doing a huge amount of important work.

What is the solution?

  1. Make the silo strong: Foster interpersonal relationships in the silo, so that they feel like a cohesive group
  2. Create ways for information to flow freely throughout the silo: Don’t make the silo feel like it will crush the lowest-level staff.  Share information throughout the group. Don’t hoard credit at the top levels.
  3. Make the silo porous: Develop bridges at every level and in-between levels between silos in your organization. Develop processes that encourage staff to create personal ladders between silos.
08 Feb

The Future of the Art Museum: The Alternative Possibilities

 

I was struck by this response to a previous post of mine. I wasn’t the only one. It had 40 likes and 18 retweets.

In many ways, art museums greatest strengths can be their failures. Art museums do quiet, meditative, restrained, and grown-up really well. These are good things for the people who already go to art museums. After all, those people like those things enough to go.

Why is attendance going down? 

Yet, museum attendance is going down.  Why? I’ll give you my take.  First, that core demographic (middle-aged women) is aging. And, those people aging into middle-age are finding other things to do. In other words, visitors are becoming a finite commodity. Unlike in previous generations, when there were fewer things to do, museums now have still competition to convert new patrons.

Notice how I didn’t say that art museums do art well. Art museums often prioritize themselves over their visitors. I love museums and even I sometimes feel like visiting the morgue might be a more jolly afternoon than some exhibitions. Sometimes I read the curatorial listings in the paper and wonder if the museums are playing a colossal game of stump the chump. And, then as if they have Jekyll and Hyde syndrome, those same institutions evoke the blockbuster card with the most stereotypical, saccharine, middle-age-lady-baiting exhibition that they can. What about the happy medium, friends? Sometimes you do that well, but only sometimes. Make this the given, instead of the occasional, and museums would automatically do better with attendance.

Art museums have also suffered for their stability. They have vast, expensive collections. They have authenticity in the hole. And, so, they have felt like they can focus on that and slack on the visitor experience. The truth is that the idea of authenticity has expanded. Who has read a book on Kindle and felt as if they didn’t read the REAL book? There is certainly the core audience who is amazed by a real Tanguy. But, there a bigger group of people who don’t care what That Guy’s real painting is. Museums can’t eschew focusing on experience. They don’t get a free pass for being repositories of the world’s history.

Museums aren’t changing fast enough. The world has changed pretty quickly in most people’s lifetimes. Other than those born after 2007, most humans remember a time before cell phones. Fast change is our normal. So, when museums tout changes that feel glacial, they show how incredibly out of step they are.

How can they stem the tide? 

Truthfully, monumental changes are needed. First, and foremost, culturally art museums have to accept that the status quo will not work. If art museums continue as they are, the audience decline will be precipitous.

Collections: 

Now, I will say that some museums are making changes and putting in certain efforts. A recent Ford Foundation grant, for example, funded some wonderful projects. Many of those efforts are focused on curatorial practices. That is a good start, on some level, as collection work is a core competency of museums. Curators have concentrated power in museums. In some ways, projects targeted at collection acquisition are focused on improving the means of production. Future collections will be less uniform, ideally, with these efforts.

Staff: 

But, those efforts might fall flat if they are not paired with many other changes. If you use the production model, even if the means of production improves, the company can still go under. Currently, museums run on a model of inequity, with portions of their staff working for considerably less than others. While in the short-term this model is fine, in the long-term this is inefficient for the field. Right now, the glut of young potential employees is high. Eventually, it will slow and then the cheap labor model will stop working.

Even if you aren’t worried about long-term sustainability, the museum staffing model is bad for visitors. Underpaid staff is not going to do their best no matter how much they love the art.

 

Visitors: 

Collection work will help museums maintain current audiences. Improving workplace equity will help them have a stable workforce, and therefore save money on retraining. This will allow them to increase time and money spent on visitor experience. Improving how people feel at the museum is the only way to increase audiences. To go back to the tweet I started with, people need to feel like the museum is enjoyable. They need to feel like you want them there as they are, not as you want them to be. In order to do this, the practice needs to align with the visitor’s needs (rather than the museums.) Without a concerted effort on making museums about visitors, we will eventually be without visitors.

06 Feb

Addressing Inadvertent Bias in Language

Words matter. Actions matter too, don’t forget. But, words can be harbingers of actions. They are certainly bellwethers of the inner mind. Words belie deep secrets. Words are the ultimate tells.

Most imperative, however, words are not static. Their meaning, their usage, their connotations fluctuate. The transmutation of meaning can feel imperceptible for people, like the growth of hair. But, other times, the change of connotation can be seismic and quick. The transformed meaning feels shocking.

So, words share meaning, and the meaning is constantly changing. How can you handle this? Go with the flow won’t work here. You need to be proactive to understand and incorporate new meanings into your language.

There are many words that can make others feel bad. These are often the words that connect to how people self-identify. These are also often the words that you feel are most fundamentally unchangeable.

What are some words that can cause others to feel bad?

  • Gender Pronouns (She/ He)
  • Words that use one group to stand in for a larger group (Mankind for Humanity)
  • Words that define an ethnicity or culture (Native America, First Peoples, Aboriginal, and/or Indian).
  • Words defining relationships between people (Wife or Partner)

How can I do better?

So, what should you do? Focus on words and usage. This is not to say meaning. We have all used words to hurt people. Instead, center your thinking on when intention is different than perception.

  • Self-reflect—
    • Start by thinking about the times when your words didn’t connect with the listeners.
    • Think about moments when you have felt you hurt people.
    • Also, consider when you have felt strongly about when people’s word usage has hurt you.
  • Investigate—
    • Make it your responsibility to learn about why certain words are not being received as you imagine.
    • Do not ask others to be responsible for your education.
    • There plenty of wonderful resources online to help you start your education.
  • Attempt—
    • Once you understand the ways that words feel to others, make your informed decision on your usage choices.
    • You might find your feelings mean that you will change your usage. You might instead feel strongly about maintaining your usage as it is. If you choose the latter, be prepared to affect people.
    • For those words that you change, put them into usage.
  • Listen
    • You will make mistakes.
    • Listen to how people react.
    • Reflect on those reactions.
    • Learn from those reactions.
  • Try Again
    • Amend your approach based.
    • Employ your new approach in language.

For more, a longer and more emotional conversation about language read my thoughts here.

01 Feb

The Strengths of Museums: What We Can Learn From Each Other

Last week, I had a wonderful amount of feedback on my post. I had compared two fairly different types of museums, Art and Science Museums, to see what they can learn from each other. Often, museums silo their practices within their own specialty. By looking over the wall at the successes of others, the whole field improves. I have compiled feedback from many to create this graphic. It is really just a start. I am sure there are so many more strengths. In fact, if you see missing ones, I would love to hear about it.

Also, what about the museums and installations that have already picked up ideas from other types of museums. I have scores of examples, but I will share one. One of the most moving art experiences my family had was at the Redford Gardens in Quebec at an international art show. My children are regular museum-goers (a familiar hazard for museum kids), but there was something amazing about art in natural space. The children were talking about form and line in ways that I hadn’t really ever observed in other museums. And, my children were not alone. Many other families were having similar experiences around us.

What are some of your favorite times where a museum has broken its usual paradigm and thereby improved the visitor experience?