09 May

Fun is Serious Work

Hiroshi Ishii of MIT Media Lab gave the 2019 Keynote for Museums and the Web. My reflections on his speech have been split into two blog posts (this week and next). The first is outward-facing and the second will be about our own work.

Hiroshi Ishii seems like fun. I spent an hour, an auditorium away from him, but still, I stand by my judgment. As he shared the projects that he, his team, students, and colleagues produced ranging from the serious to the seriously wacky, I noticed how much pleasure he takes in his work, which is a topic for another post. I also noticed the level of whimsy and joy the products were meant to elicit in the users. Joy and fun are related concepts. Overall, his talk made me consider 1. the emotional impact we hope to elicit in visitors and 2. why museums fear fun. These might seem unrelated, but there is a connection.

Often when thinking about museum galleries and spaces, we are focused on content. Given learning and teaching are in most of our missions, information dissemination is an important mission-driven outcome. But, ignoring emotional impact isn’t a smart way to get to this outcome. For example, a patron bored by a space will not easily learn anything. Learning outcomes, therefore, need to be tied to feelings and methods. Some learning is best done through quiet reflection giving the learner the feeling of contentment. Other types of learning are best done through social engagement giving the learner the feeling of excitement. Being purposeful about feelings will increase our ability to engage effectively. Ignoring emotional impact is a means of preventing broader success.

Emotional impact is connected to accessibility. Discomfort is one of the most common feelings for people who don’t come to museums. We, as field, don’t have great research on what specific, concrete issues make visitors uncomfortable. But I would guess, some of the issues relate to the clinical nature of spaces, and the ways that norms are not clearly communicated. Unseen rules make for a culture of exclusion. Now, if asked, few museum professionals would say they want their spaces to be cold or unwelcoming. They might say they want a clean, uncluttered aesthetic. Herein lies a huge challenge. Emotional impact is often different based on numerous cultural factors. What is warm for one person is smothering or off-putting for another.

So, what is the solution? First, let’s get at the essential. Museums are conduits, where ideas pass from person to person, if through the objects and spaces. Therefore, understanding our visitors is essential. We need to remember we are different from our visitors. Many museum professionals walked into the job feeling comfortable in those spaces. Some museum professionals, such as those from lower socio-economic backgrounds or people of color, might have had a long road to learn to feel comfortable in museum spaces. These professionals are gold in the pursuit of emotionally accessible spaces. But, also, don’t tokenize those people. Hear them, and use their ideas to help you improve. But, also talk to visitors.

Improvement, however, will require change, the scariest word in some museum workers dictionary. We often hope to make visitors okay with our spaces and programs without making real change. Some visitors are fine with this (top right quadrant). These people are our low hanging fruit, as the saying goes. They are good with us without changes. Bringing them in only requires getting their attention, say. We very much fear to have to change so far outside our current norms so much as to lose our central tenets (top left). We really fear giving up our central tenets only to have no one visit us (bottom left). But, actually, many of the changes that can improve the emotional impact of our work don’t require destroying our way of life. Some current non-visitors would come to join us, if only we made a few well-placed changes, like refinements in the ways security is dressed, for example (bottom right). Fear (of change) is an emotion we need to eradicate if we want to better emotionally-engage visitors.

In order to draw in that bottom right quadrant or at least some segment of that quadrant, we need to be thinking about the ways we are excluding them inadvertently. Ignoring the emotional impact of our spaces and programs is an important problem. In experiences, for example, we might hope to bring in new visitors, by using old methodologies. This behavior is good money after bad and demoralizing for the staff. Instead, you need to pair your considerations of emotional impact with an understanding of the ideal methods of engagement. Here is where fun comes up.

In museums, fun is also a particularly thorny issue. So much of Ishii’s projects used fun to elicit joy. Herein lies an important point Ishii’s talk reinforced–fun is an excellent engagement strategy. Just as boring situations decrease the likelihood of learning, fun situations can increase the likelihood of learning. Now, this point is hard for museums to grasp sometimes. Fun can increase learning. Please don’t gnash your teeth, as you mutter edutainment or gamification. Museum spaces, when calibrated for emotional engagement, can be fun because fun isn’t just Chuck E. Cheese and waterparks.

Fun is a slippery term for a number of types of engagements eliciting many emotions. Many adults don’t understand fun, in its complexity. We often see fun as something associated with children, and as adults, we move into enjoyment. Or we see a narrow range of items as being fun. Scholars of leisure experience see fun much more complexly. Museums often fall into the serious fun (see below) category or the social fun category, even if we don’t discuss them in this manner.

Why does this matter? Ignoring fun is a diversity and inclusion issue. There is a snobbish-ness to ignoring fun, but that is because leisure is a class-based experience. Some of the types of fun in museums are most commonly coded to upper-middle class ways of life, and so other broader types of fun can challenge our norms. So many types of fun require onboarding, and if you don’t have the funds to get onboarded, or a person to help you see the value, you won’t get it.

To back to the image above (“Its Not Them, Its Us”), we’re not always willing to expand into the types of fun that keep our core values but engage more people (to the bottom right). Educational games might be an example of fun in museums. But in thinking about Ishii’s comments, those educational games are still very much tied to learning outcomes, as such are working for people who already like the museum. In order to be truly inclusive, museums need to explore all the different types of fun and see what types of fun, and associated emotions, appeal to different audiences.

Nicole Lazzaro’s Concept of Fun

Museums don’t talk about fun for a number of reasons. As discussed above, fun is often misunderstood and complicated. But, also, we fear fun. We worry that fun would be in opposition to our learning outcomes or our scholarly underpinning. We might have to change in order for people to have fun. Yes, we might. But the changes might be small, such as aligning emotional impacts with methods. The changes might be enormous, but if you keep steadfast to your central tenets, the growth will be worthy.

Emotions and fun might feel outside of our work at museums, but they are central to why visitors come to our spaces. When museum professional defame “fun”, they are often thinking of a certain type of fun, usually something age-based and low-engagement. But, most of our visitors see our spaces as fun. Our visitors will have fun in our spaces no matter what we do. In 2017, 81 percent of Americans participated in cultural activities for the purpose of ‘having fun’. So, ignoring the concept of fun is bad for business.

What are good next steps for museum professionals?

  1. Excavate what your staff thinks is fun. Study what your visitors find fun. Rectify any discrepancies and develop a plan to infuse more fun in your work. (Remembering fun is a broad, complex concept).
  2. Be thoughtful about the emotional impact of spaces and programs. Articulate ideal emotional states for spaces and programs. Research if these impacts are occurring. Iterate. Iterate. Iterate.

More Reading

Museums have a Problem with Fun

Sources

Leisure Time Study

Museums and Leisure

Anatomy of Fun

02 May

Really Hearing Our Visitors

I have generally prided myself on a kind of democratic, small d, form of museum work. I proudly took on visitor-centered aspects of the work. I have helped Cavs fans make signs for the largest parade our city had seen; I rode in a giant artwork inspired parade float (Schreckengost’s Jazz Bowl) in front of thousands of viewers; I have crawled through galleries pretending to be a puma. I saw myself as a populist, someone who does the work because I like people.

I hope this little enumeration of my credentials sounds like pride before the fall. It is.

Last weekend, I went to the 36th Annual Western Reserve Writers Conference held at the Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL). An age ago, I worked on a project that partnered with the person in charge of that writing center, and I always respected her. I am also in the midst of editing my two YA manuscripts in my scant, but luxurious, spare time. David Giffels, a northeast Ohio writer of some renowned having been discussed in the New York Times and other fancy publications, was to be the keynote speaker. I’d heard Giffels speak before, and he was equal parts self-effacing and thoughtful. Listening to David Giffels speak at CCPL seemed an ideal way to kickstart my work.

His keynote was a meditation on inspiration and action. I finished the keynote feeling ready to tackle my novel. But, then, there were to be a series of workshops, one run by Giffels. And, the kind Friends of South Euclid Library had provided Swiss Miss-style hot cocoa. It had been ages since I had indulged in hot cocoa. Staying seemed like a great idea.

Hot cocoa in hand, computer open, I watched Giffels lead our class. He led us through a few exercises he does in his university classroom. The first exercise was to describe an object using all the senses. It took some self-restraint not to yell “ekphrasis.” Then, as with all workshops, he asked a few people to share. One of the participants had written an interpretation of her object rather than just write descriptors. I judged her for not following the rules. Giffels, on the other hand, rolled with it. He praised elements of the work, smiling affably. For the rest of the session, I watched him meet people where they were with what they offered him. He genuinely seemed interested in the participants. He was in the moment, with his students.

The ability to meet people where they are and connect without judgment is rare, in part because it contradicts the group-cohesion nature of many types of social practice. Groups often have unspoken norms and police behavior to determine who falls within the group. Museums function in this manner. Many potential visitors avoid museums for fear of breaching the unspoken norms of our spaces. We support the exclusive nature of our spaces, and our in-group of museum-goers, by making the norms inscrutable, like using subtle or non-existent signage about appropriate behavior. When museums look at making spaces more accessible, they are hoping new visitors will conform to existing norms.

What does the issue of signs have to do with Giffels and my judgmental subconscious? Giffels reminded me that when we work with people, we can’t judge them for their difference. Truly listening to people means you have to be open and kind. You can offer them some rules, but they might not follow them. And, some rules shouldn’t be enforced at the sacrifice of a good experience. Connecting person to person has enormous value.

When we look at our visitors, we can’t perform inclusion while maintaining practices of exclusion, both on the institutional level but also personally. We need to not just talk about listening to people, all people; we need to hear them. We need to step out of expectations and into a shared space of communication. Speaking together people can help us create a shared language. Ekphrasis means nothing to most people, but talking about “what do you see” can, but only if you allow any answer to that question, instead of just one “right” one.