Last month, I put a call out on Twitter for museum professionals to share their predictions for 2018. Before we get into the trends, it is useful to share the respondents’ collective vision of museums and the field.
What is a museum?
I invited participants to share their definition of a museum in 140 words (The survey was produced before #280characters). The themes of the responses could be categorized into three big themes:
- Object-oriented: Respondents used works like objects, conservation, and loan.
- Social Space: Words like institution and space were often paired with words like gather and community.
- Learning focused: The responses described the broadest sense of education, including scholarship, experiences, and interprets.
What is museum education?
Respondents were asked to give five words that defined museum education. The terms were overwhelmingly positive, with only 1/3 having negative connotations. Most of the positive words related to the output of museum educator and the experiences of visitors. There was a broad span of terms, including words that describe specific activities like workshops and terms that describe methodological approaches like engaging. Some of the terms might connect to values held by practitioners, like flexible, creative, dynamic. A few respondents shared words that might indicate changes in the field like transforming and evolving.
The negative and ambiguous terms related to the working in the field. Some words like comfortable and complex can be seen as positive or negative. Other words like undervalued and frustrating are clearly negative. These words often allude to the feelings of workers, feeling undervalued, underpaid, and stifled. Other negative words focus on the programs of museums and how they impact museum education like siloed, unchanged, and racially white.
Museum Education 2018 Trendcasting
Respondents were shared many issues about visitors, both generally and also specifically on K12. They shared their interest in developing programs that were relevant and experiential. The other major theme in responses were about social justice and access, as well as the training needed to be able to create equitable programming. Above, one can see the relative importance of the major themes, and below one can see the nuance in the responses.
When seen together, museum education in 2018 would like to offer visitors a high-quality, inclusive experiences but feel real challenges in order to do so like funding and training. Educators are thinking about how to evolve to meet the learning needs of visitors. They are interested in finding ways to include narrative and responsive experiences to engage visitors. But, they are also thoughtful about the fact that diversity, access, equity need to be planned and supported.
The respondents discussed this tension between goals and funds in their trendcasting for 2022. The above graphic shows the aggregate of all of the long-form responses about museum education in 2022.In other words, museum educators do not foresee that the problems in the field will improve in the next five years. Digital and technology were big themes for the future, particularly AI. There were real concerns about balancing technology and collections-based experiences. There were also real fears about challenges for the future in terms of funding and staffing.
Stepping up a level, looking at the projected themes helps clarify the biggest issues projected for 2022. Not surprisingly, there was a greater disparity in themes for the 2022 trends, as forecasting so far out is more challenging. That said, notice the certain issues like disaster readiness appear on the 2022 themes list but were absent from the 2018 list.
The educators had clear expectations for 2018. Equity and access was a major theme, along with the perennial issues of schools and visitor experiences. However, funding and workplace challenges were equally important. Taken together, one can see a distinct tension between expectations and possibilities. Museum educators want to do more but are already strapped. In many ways, the 2022 projections indicate that there is a sense that the big challenges of funding and equity/access might not be addressed.
So, how as a field can we thwart the predictions for museum education 2022?
- How can we address the issues of frustration in the field?
- How we move our work into a supported position in our organizations?
- What types of funding changes or expectation changes are needed?
- How can we make real changes with equity and access so that five years from now we are looking at broader audiences?
What are your thoughts on the trends for 2018 or futureproofing the field for 2022?
Also, if you would like to look at the raw data, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
User Experience Design is the set of practices employed to create products that center the user. These designers focus on people to make products better. Their working practices also center people to foster collaboration and support. So, what can museum workers learn from UX Designers:
Problem: You are working on a big project together but you don’t know what each person is doing.
Make it Visual
Put up a physical board that shows where each team comes in. Have teams tick off progress so that everyone can see quickly.
Stand-Ups/ Check-in time
Set up a time that you can check in for 15 minutes with everyone that recurs. This could be weekly or daily depending on the timeline. Every team reports where they are on the project. Then, you deal with pressing issues teams have in order to go forward.
Don’t let this meeting go over. Be brutal when the meeting gets off track.
You can do this live, if the group size makes this feasible. If not, try meeting on slack. Avoid doing this on email, as it will just cause chaos.
Problem: You are never in the same place or in the same meetings.
Make time for in-person interactions
Buy some cake and invite the team. Set up some time to meet together for lunch. Foster strong bonds across silos.
Add some Slack
Online tools like slack can be an ideal way to create a conversational tone amongst peers from different teams.
Make files accessible
Create a shared drive, with naming and filing conventions, so that everyone is looking at the same thing.
Problem: Everyone has their own process.
Create a common language
Processes can differ if you are communicating together. Find ways to find commonality, like by creating shared experiences (see above). You might need to create a shared term’s document so that you are all speaking the same language. This final detail is particularly important in places that use a number of acronyms or in projects that work across a divergent field.
Problem: There are misconceptions in other departments about your project.
Align with your message
Make sure everyone on the project has the same message. Allow everyone to share the message, or find a message that everyone can share.
Invest time into educating people about your project.
Nominate people throughout hierarchy and across the project departments to serve as ambassadors.
Be transparent about your work to those outside your project teams, including setbacks. This will build trust and goodwill.
This post was inspired by the great post by Code Monkey Tech.
Visuals are incredibly powerful tools for teaching. But, you need to think about visuals alongside the text. Don’t make one element subsidiary to the other. Figure out what you need to get across and then develop a strategy for that idea. If you have ever written a label, you might have struggled on how to get across an incredibly difficult concept in words. For me, that challenge was explaining piece casting in words.
There is no fast and hard rule to do this well. I would guess you are using visuals much less than you could. I would guess engagement with ideas would go up if you used them better. But, don’t rely on my guess. Try some tactics. Tell your visitors that these are tests. Ask for feedback. Learn from your visitors and show your visitors that you are being responsive to their needs.
Here are some specific ways to use images. I could write them out solely in words, but that would do you a disservice.
With the end of Net Neutrality, companies would be able to charge differential rates for service. Organizations and people will pay more. The ramifications will be enormous. Organizations will need to make tough choices; they might cut programs or fold altogether. Along with the higher cost of service, organizations will likely lose money due to difficulty reaching diverse audiences. Lower income people will have less access to the internet. Additionally, collaboration and free speech itself will be impeded. Overall, cultural organizations will find it much harder to fulfill their mission.
What can you do?
Join a protest!
Contact your representatives, so they might put pressure on the FCC.
Share your ideas with others so you can bring them to the battle.
Museums might be said to be on the higher-end of the leisure world. They have cache. If not, imagine the situation associated with the phrase, “We are at the museum today.” Now imagine being in the situation to be able to say, “we are at an amusement park right now.” Both are perfectly enjoyable, no doubt. But, the former is more rarified than the latter. Amusement parks bear their mission in their name–an outdoor space to bring joy. Museums, on the other hand, as a word is somewhat out of step with the current usage. The word denotes these sites as places for people to encounter the muses. While certainly, no museum is actively discouraging convening with the muses, such spiritual-intellectual pursuits are just one of a range of experiences that the contemporary museum hopes to foster. Unlike amusement park, with only a century or so of history, museums have 400 of history. In the word of whip-fast brand pivots, museums change is glacial, but they have continued to evolve. This evolution includes slowly but surely fostering social media use by patrons about collections. These moments when the glacial change becomes apparent can confuse people. Every once in a while, the media bemoans changes to museums like the use of social in the galleries. But, hard as it is to believe, change has been part of museum culture since it began.
Change in Museums
Early museums began in Europe. A museum, as described in the Ephraim Chambers Cyclopædia of 1750, is “any place set apart as a repository for things that have some immediate relation to the arts, or to the muses”, while a repository was “a store-house or place where things are laid-up, and kept.” In other words, early museums were set apart from warehouses by the act of curating meaningful arrangements. Museums were a place “to instruct the mind and sow the seeds of Virtue” as noted by Charles Willson Peale founder of the Philadelphia Museum in 1784. These spaces were meant to be visited by the well-heeled they have the proper disposition and pre-knowledge to appreciate the nuance of museum installations. Museums were in keeping with a host of amateur activities pursued by gentlemen during their leisure. Contemplation and conversation over objects were fun for a certain class of men.
— Smithsonian (@smithsonian) November 3, 2017
The idea of museums spread quickly along the same networks that supported the colonialism of the age. By the early 19th century, museums were found on all inhabited continents. But, by this time, museums had already changed substantively. Rather than being for a select group of educated men, museums were now seen as a place for the general public. Additionally, visitors were allowed to self-guide through museums rather than taking a prescribed tour of the galleries. With the inclusion of all types of people, museums began to foreground their educational nature. In their first century, they could be assured an audience with the necessary foundations to understand the collection. But, in the 19th century, as James Smithson, founder of the Smithsonian, said museums are “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Museums were a way to share ideas with anyone.
The 20th century saw a massive growth of museums. These museums maintained and augmented their educational value. Most museums developed departments tasked with education. Spaces began to reflect this educational charge. Education was diversifying in the real world and museums met this challenge accordingly. But, museums also began to offer more entertaining ways to explore collections, like classes for children and lectures for adults.
The first decades of the 21st century have seen an exponential rise in the number of museums. Museums are no longer solely about collections but also ideas. More importantly, museums are fighting against many leisure spaces for visitors’ attention. Museum has met this challenge in innovative ways. I, myself, happily spent a career developing family guides, technology content, role-playing games, and social media campaigns. (I am the middle person in the picture :>)
And good question ! If I try to sum up : experiencied visitors (labels, art pieces (globally, details,…) first-time visitors (institution, architecture (inside/outside), visitors group). But it’s also mixed with visitors personal interests and passions 🙂
— Sébastien Appiotti (@sappiotti) November 23, 2017
Museums in many ways have returned to the roots. Rather than doing it wrong, visitors are taking up the charge of the early founders. People are enlightened by the muse in our galleries, taking and sharing photographs. Now, the question is how do we continue with the 19th-century ideal that museums should be for the broad public? Firstly, by encouraging and supporting the action of taking photographs. Social allows visitors to engage with the best intentions of museums in the language of our time.
Interpretation can be defined in many ways for museums, but the term is most often associated with labels. In actuality, interpretation should be everything that is information about your collection. Ideally, you are thinking about a whole ecosystem of ideas from information without an intercessor, like a label, to information disseminated by people, like a class.
This graph uses the scale of the circle for the relative usage. The overlaps show an audience sector that uses multiples forms of interpretation. Notice that the smallest overlap by area is the one that uses all of the forms of interpretation.
Visitor feedback is an essential part of planning your strategy. Ideally, you will work through quantitative and qualitative data to model your content ecosystem. Your relative circles might be very different than the generalized one above. You might find that you have a smaller social media footprint but a larger one for classes. (This might be true if your audience skews older).
You need to balance visitor feedback with professional opinion. Which stories do you feel you must share? Which ideas are most relevant to visitors? Which ideas will draw people to the object? Which ideas will inspire people? Once you know what you want to offer visitors, and what visitors enjoy, you need to split your ideas by interpretation tool. Some tools can handle many ideas. Some do better with few ideas. The tools themselves will in part determine which ideas go where. Social media is a wonderful image driven field, so don’t shoe-horn long text in there. Catalogs can handle many ideas in a long narrative format.
Developing an interpretation strategy is challenging without a doubt. You need to work through legacy issues and smooth out the variety of cultures in your organizational work-flow. But, with a strategy in place, in the long run, you will be able to develop content more efficiently.
This is the sixth in a series of posts about considering Interpretation and Content to Meet Today’s Visitor’s Needs.
At the core, museums offer the interpretation to offer people connections to collections. Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s director, says, “What we really want to do is humanize history.” The delivery method matters on one key level. Technology allows for vast off-site interpretation. But, even when visitors are not in the museum, as Karen Franscona, Boston Museum of Fine Arts Director of Public Relations, suggests interpretation still seeks “to explain things and expose our works of art to people who may have never come to our museum.”
Why use Technology-delivered Interpretation?
People use technology. 88 percent of Americans used the Internet, and therefore a form of technology, in 2016. Technology has allowed museums to become global as never before. Now your audience has grown from those who came onsite to those your find your presence (by choice or by surprise). Half of the visitors to the website are not planning a visit, for example. The museum’s largest audience sector might be those who don’t ever visit onsite.
Technology is a utility, not unlike electricity. Just as you use electricity to turn on the light in a classroom or to power your ticketing computers, technology fuels multiple functions of the museum–and multiple parts of our visitors’ lives. They use it to buy plane tickets, read the news, and talk to friends. Technology is not for X, it’s for X,Y,Z. Museums need to meet various needs equally well.
The content on technology has to be as good as anywhere else in the organization if not better. Your audience is particularly knowledgeable about bad content on technology. They use it all the time. Social media can’t be solely a sales channel. That would be the equivalent of a newspaper only being coupon circulars. Interactives can’t just be bells and whistles.
So, start with the idea and the audience.Before we think a little about interpretation for technology, we might go back to the issues of writing labels. Museums create content for multiple audiences. These audiences often have disparate needs.
Technology allows you to meet the differentiated needs of visitors better than ever. You can produce content that combines visuals and text in a sophisticated manner. Technology can be updated and more quickly relevant. You can meet respond to current events with incredible speed and specificity.
Each of these users can tap into multiple and differentiated engagements with your collection. Digital allows for better differentiation by format for the audience. Personalization is what people want. The visit to the site may be the reason that they are accessing technology-delivered interpretation or the impetus for using your off-site technology resources. They may never visit. Your technology, particularly social media, might reach those who otherwise would never even thinking about your museum.
In other words, technology interpretation can serve your existing audience better or draw new audiences. The numbers can be astonishing. Art Institute of Chicago has about 1.5 million onsite visitors and 706000 on social media. LACMA 1.2 Million onsite and 2 million on social media platforms.
Technology-based interpretation writers, therefore, might have scores more consumers of their ideas than label writers. (Usually, these aren’t the same person). They are all likely using the same source information derived from the curator, say a catalog or curatorial write-up.
How should you use technology-delivered interpretation?
- Create purpose-built content for deployment. Just as you wouldn’t cut the catalog entry from the book to use as a label, don’t use the same text on the web as in social. Remember people consume ideas differently when reading technology. Understand that people’s needs can be different even for the same technology tool. For example, visitors to the website have many needs, so that are different than onsite visitors (such as planning your visit.)
- Create connect that extends relationships. Find ways that encourage people to check back. Show the installation process in phases. Be transparent about testing technology. Make the premature birth of an animal a national obsession. Let technology help your organization be honest with visitors.
- Use each technology tool to its best ability. For example, social media is an engagement tool. Jonas Heide Smith shares in his Museums and the Web paper that social media can maximize reach but also add new levels of engagement within the institution and with new audiences. Think of your own experiences. Do you use your public Instagram to ask your mom to bring you dinner? (Also, don’t ask your mom to bring you dinner.) And, then research numbers on what the general population is doing on different platforms.
- Embrace content co-creation. People are already using technology to make and share content, mostly pictures. Allow them to do so, and then applaud them for it by amplifying their reach through shares on your channels. For example, social media, with “Take-overs” events allow museums to change the balance of power in content creation.
- Don’t assume. Test! Much has been made about the youthful demographics on technology. But, don’t be the museum that assumes that ‘all the kids want X.’ Social media particularly allows you to try many different approaches fairly affordably. You might find that your funny meme is particularly popular with the older folks–they have smartphones too.
- Be Game but Don’t Play Games: Humor is incredibly challenging in print. Think of all those lame jokes that don’t come off in texts from your dad. Museums can certainly speak in the vernacular of the media but do it thoughtfully. Everyone knows when you are pandering. There are scores of examples of brands doing so, so wrong on social. Don’t be those brands.
- Invest. Right now, there are inherent time and money disparities in the field in general, but definitely in content creation. Curators spend years on catalogs and labels and social media needs to turn it around in minutes for pennies on the dollar. Without completely going into the issues with museum hierarchies, let’s focus on digital content. Make a plan that you can afford. Choose the platform that you can staff. And, then do that really well.
Many people have written about this much better than I, so here is also a sampling:
- Russell Dornan, Should Museums have a Personality?
- W. Ryan Dodge, A New Social Media Presence for ROM & I am not a Social Media Guru
- Dana Allen-Greil and the National Archives, Social Media Strategy
- Alli Burness, Tech and Emotions
This is the fifth in a series of posts about considering Interpretation and Content to Meet Today’s Visitor’s Needs.
As a “first year” in college, I sat in a bright room that belied the imposing gothic facades that populated campus. My professor asked us to raise our hands if we were rational beings. We all raised our hands. He asked us to keep our hands up if we were not biased. He then asked us to keep our hands up if we are able to turn a lens on culture critically, without bias. We all maintained our smiles with our hands thrust in the air. He then said that every hand should be down. No human, he explained, could be outside society.
We all have these moments that break into our excepted vision of the universe. These are revelations which change everything. I never again could look at anything within society as being anything but socially/ culturally constructed. Nothing is free of culture. Think of this metaphor. Everything in the world is culture; and we cannot step outside it into space, as there is no air there.
So, when I saw this debate on Twitter about my colleague/ friends at Portland Art Museum’s exhibition involving sharing ideas with visitors, I was almost incredulous. The socially constructed nature of everything, including museums, is something that has suffused all my work. It occurred to me that this might be an issue of nomenclature. Political is a word that has become tainted with additional meaning. In its original sense, it means to wade into the ideas that are part of society. Partisan, on the other hand, is to take sides. People might not understand that nothing is neutral; everything is within society.
Of course, the idea that museums are not neutral is not solely an academic one. Money is involved, and as such, complications follow. Museums are 501(c)3s or non-profits. As such, there are many rules as to how they should behave. But, those laws do not prevent museums from sharing ideas or empowering visitors to make choices. In fact, those laws support museums in doing their part to help visitors be informed. Those laws help create a structure denoting exactly how far museums can go. Truthfully, when people like Portland do anything, they are way ahead of others, and so it looks as if they have crossed a line. But, what they have done is stand up to do what’s right within the law. If this seems shocking, you might instead wonder why more museums aren’t joining the charge.