Here is a tool I am using this week to take stock before I plan and strategize about work for next year. I am passing it on in case it can help you with your year-end consideration.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Many people have written about this much better than I, so here is also a sampling:
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.
Early man likely shared stories orally. These stories would eventually become text. But, images probably came before written text. While the exact purpose of these visuals remains unclear, certainly one can assume that the original audience was able to garner meaning from looking at the images.
This is not surprising if you think of life. From the moment most people open their ideas to the moment they start a dream, our brains are inundated with visual imagery. As babies, we can read images long before text. Everyone, on some level, has an incipient level of visual literacy, or the ability to connect images to socially-coded meaning.
The caveman in us was very adept at understanding visual stimulate—their lives depended on it. In fact, our brains are faster at making sense of visual stimuli. We can make sense of visual information in an estimated 1/10 a second. Another study indicates that we can make sense of visuals 60,000 times faster than making sense of a text.
What changes have occurred in the last decade, or so?
The success of visual content is predicted on this natural predisposition. Our society went from a fairly slow rate of visual production until the invention of the printing press, at which time we could speed things up considerably. The explosion of affordable, mass-produced imagery must have been astonishing. Cameras, television, and the internet saw concomitant jumps in the number of images produced and shared. But, the last few years have seen an unprecedented increase. While an estimated 3.8 trillion photos were taken in all of from 1939 until mid-2011, 1 trillion photos were taken in 2015 alone.
There are a number of drivers of this growth. Data is cheaper. Smartphones and tablets have a very high diffusion in society. Visuals are ever cheaper to print, like in print on demand book.
And, the appetite seems to be growing. Video, for example, is expanding (though its success is arguable). From the content producer end, video makes sense. Forrester Research suggests that one minute of video is worth 1.8 million words. Most social media apps see a major uptick in engagement when images are attached. Images drive nearly 60% of all digital impressions.
Why use visuals? Why think harder about visual interpretation?
Basically, we do better at visual interpretation, because this is something our visitors value. Period. But, if you want to drill down, visuals are good at:
What needs to change in museums?
First, we need to understand that increasing visuals in our interpretation is in no way devaluing our collections. We can maintain the authenticity of the originals, and the joy of looking at the real dinosaur bone, say, while still increasing the rigor and quality of visual interpretation.
In just the last couple years, social media has indicated the importance of visuals to drive growth, like the expanding market of Instagram or the dominance of Facebook. Google is setting some real money into visual search. Already 1.2 Billion images are uploaded to Google Photo every day. Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are low-text immersive technologies predicated on images. The future uses of AR and VR remain enticing. All in all, advances of technology support image-first or highly image-based content.
The continued growth in image-based technology is driven by people’s consumption. While the general populace consumes more image-delivered content, our curators, and other staff, i.e. those who determine the tone of communication, are trained largely using text and testing their knowledge with text. Therefore, we naturally use text to describe images, but we aren’t predisposed to use visuals to define images/ visual collections. We are also likely much higher consumers of text than the average visitor.
Additionally, our visual communication is often disconnected to that which our visitors consume other places. Our visitors have very sophisticated visual literacy. They decode visual in marketing, often visuals that stand alone or have little subsidiary text. They see 5,000 branded images every day. They get 11 million bits of information every second.
In other words, our visitors are basically immersed in visual decode constantly. Even with these visually-literate consumers, we use visuals sparingly as a field, or rather, we use text as the primary. Some fields are better at using visuals, like science and natural history museums. This might be in part due to their training, where the illustration is a long-standing element of learning and teaching.
I remember when I was working on the content for Gallery One, my most striking lesson was the way that imagery was the best way to show context. Images are how we see context in our own life, so of course they are the most nature way to show context from history lives. I could talk about fibula until I was blue in the face or I could just show you this image:
Overall, we still remain text first. And, this is a major problem. We need to make sure to think of visuals and text as an interpretation package. Our visitors are using visual and text together to make sense of our collections; our interpretation doesn’t alway help support this. Therefore, we need to be strategic in the ways that we use this. We need to make sure to think of visuals and text together, without either being subsidiary to the other.
Remember, in the world outside museums, images are definitely on equal footing with images, if not central in most of the content that our visitors consume. Sharing content that resonates with the norms of society is ultimately the way for museums to remain relevant.
I placed the visual summary here. Reflect on your experience accessing this information visually as compared to the textual approach above:
This is the fourth in a series of posts about considering Interpretation and Content to Meet Today’s Visitor’s Needs.
Truly inclusive museums center visitors in their practice. In order to do this, they make sure that the idea that they offer through interpretation balance the desires and needs of museums and visitors. Ideally, they include elements of the collection object and its history in ways that are relevant to the visitor.
The graphic, however, is the most generalized state for interpretation. In practice, parts of this diagram will increase in relative scale. For example, for most objects, the donor portion is much smaller than the relevancy. How do you measure this? Well, go back to your goal–you want to center visitors. Look at the ideas from the visitor’s lens. (A future post will share more about thinking of interpretation holistically.)
So how do you do this? Start by thinking about the object. That object is so much all in one package no matter what the collection–art or science. As an interpreter, you are the person who decides what stories are foregrounded. But, in order to do that, you need to be thoughtful about the choices you make. Think of the object as a locus of fractal layers of ideas. There are so many elements that come together.
Step through all those hidden layers from the object’s beginning to now. You could start with tangible, like its surface texture, but also think about the layers that are intangible. Also, you can consider the object and the culture around the object. And, then be thoughtful about how you explicate and excavate those layers for your visitors. Many of those layers, like the use, have changed over time, so they are not obvious to visitors. Some of these elements might be also invisible now, like the context. You can bring the invisible past into people’s present in relevant ways.
My classic example is the fibula. As you think about developing the interpretation of this object, break out every layer of an object, and be thoughtful about what elements that you choose to use in your interpretation. Certainly, this was not just a functional object, it was also a marker of wealth and gender. Compare these two statements: “The fibula is used to hold up a garment.” or “Wealthy men in early Britain used finely wrought fibula to fasten their garments. The latter statement adds important layers of knowledge connecting the object’s present to facets of its past.
But, think of the power you have. You can help people journey into ideas and concepts that are apparently invisible. You have the chance to transform something inert into a transformational tool. Take up that charge.
This is the fifth in a series of posts about considering Interpretation and Content to Meet Today’s Visitor’s Needs.