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 friend, 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.

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

28 Sep

Team Dynamics in the Nonprofit Workplace / The Pride and Prejudice Guide to the Non-Profit Workplace

Pride and Prejudice, written by Jane Austen, was first published in 1813. In the subsequent 200 years, the tale of a family of unmarried daughters and their subsequent marital aspirations remains a popular novel. In my recent reread of the book, I started to focus on the staying power of this literary classic. This novel is about interrelationships, communication, and strife. In many ways, this book, with some plot transformations, could be any nonprofit. Rather than regurgitate the novel, check out the synopsis before digging into the rest of the post.


In many ways, this book, with some plot transformations, could be any non-profit office place. Instead of the ideal husband, rich and loving, the non-profit organization is seeking the ideal donor. While we dream of a Bingley, a rich, affable donor who lets us do what we want, we end up with ever so many Collins, the low-level donors with outstripped demands on our time. The rare Darcy might come up; this donor is demanding but in ways that appreciably grow your organization.

The Non-Profit Team

So, if the suitors are the donors, then the Bennett family is a useful metaphor for the non-profit organization. Each working team has a set of people: You will likely have a number of Jane’s and Kitty’s. These are people who do their work and keep things going, but they don’t make waves. You will have a fair number of Mary’s. These are the people who follow rules above all other choices; they don’t bend.

You will likely have a number of Jane’s and Kitty’s. These are people who do their work and keep things going, but they don’t make waves.

You will have a fair number of Mary’s. These are the people who follow rules above all other choices; they don’t bend. These are not leaders, but sometimes they are also not followers.

The smallest categories of workers are the Lizzy’s and Kitty’s. In many ways, they are like ying and yang. For all of Lizzy’s amazing characteristics, her judgmental nature makes her challenging in the workplace. Similarly, for all of Kitty’s negative characteristics, she is definitely doing something. So many of the people in the non-profit ecosystem are maintaining the status quo, and the Lizzy’s are a rarity.

So What? 

In the novel, Lizzy, the main character, slowly comes to value people for who they are. For example, when her friend marries Lizzy’s horrible cousin Collins, she comes to see that the match is actually fairly good.  Love isn’t the only path to marriage, she realizes.

Working with other people is often about just getting along well enough to get the project done without impaling each other.  A big part of this is realizing that you can’t change people. Frankly, it is hard enough to change yourself, and you are generally in control of your faculties. So instead of changing people, you are often better served by understanding others.

Certainly, the characters of Pride and Prejudice are more simplistic than real people. Most people aren’t straight Lizzy’s or Lydia’s. But, when you are sitting in a staff meeting, wondering why your insane coworker is allowed such latitude, step back. Try to consider what positive things happen when this person goes off the deep-end.

15 Sep

Making Equity Happen — One Man at a Time

The thing about privilege is that, if you have it, you likely don’t notice it. Privilege is when you gain benefits in society for being part of the dominant group. Privilege is easier to notice when absent. When you are the dominant position, the world is defined by your group. You might not have the distance to see the world through the eyes of people on the outside.

The pervasiveness of male dominance, for example, suffuses our society. Think of the English language. The strength of a team is defined by manpower. The honorable athletes amongst us are noted for their sportsmanship. Our species or our civilization, alternately, are poetically described as all mankind. Sure, you might consider these but linguistic quirks. But, in each of those terms, the position of man is central. In other words, everyone else is defined as “not” man. Think for a moment about how it feels to be in the “not” position—to define yourself as being in opposition to something. Your existence is contingent on their existence, yet their existence is self-defined. So as a man, even the English language puts you at the center and you need to strain to see out to the edges.
But, once you see those edges, what happens next? When you see your privileges, what do you do with them? Privilege is a power position. You have access to situations that those not in power don’t. Will you maintain the structure as it is for fear of change? Or will you act on the side of equity, and bring more people to the center with you?

Bringing more people to the center, or redistributing the structure of power, can be daunting. I mean, am I asking you to change the world? Yes, I am. But, I am not leaving you the work alone. This whole post came out the wonderful work nikhil trivedi does about equity. I have had the pleasure to know him for a while. He shares his empathy and compassion in everything he does. He is inspired by and works in concert with all the women, femme, and gender nonconforming people who came before him. But, he is not just an emotive dreamer; he is a doer. He models the way that men can be advocates and actors in the fight for equity. He offers many tips for men to change the power structure in his upcoming post and Museopunks podcast. Also, if you want to rid your language of these sorts of gendered phrases, here is a good list. 

07 Sep

What if I’m Burned Out? Counteracting Workplace Burnout

There are days when all of us feel a little tired. But, sometimes, you find yourself dead-tired day after day and the thought of going into work makes your brain feel like it’s going to short-circuit. The former might just be garden variety tiredness, but the latter sounds like burn out.

With the real possibility of working 24hrs a day, American workers are being asked to do more and more. Non-profit and museum worker often find themselves between a rock and a hard place; work hard because jobs are hard to come by. The result is this sector is full of people who are performing impaired by the mental and physical effects of burn out.

The following graphic is a quick look at burn out. But for more reading, catch this article from the New York Times and the Harvard Business Review.  Robert Weisberg and I are also working on an e-book, due this fall at #MCN2017, that will expand on ways to dodge burnout to survive change. 

05 Sep

What Flow and Transcendent Design Mean for Museums #CX #UX / On Yayoi Kusuma

Kusuma Yayoi has been on Instagram accounts big and small over the last year. Her exhibition Infinity Mirrors has been selling out faster than THE concert of the year. Her work has been hailed as “the perfect art experience for the social-media age.” Kusuma’s work has become coupled with the national addition with self-promotion and narcissism. The exhibition’s success is due to the national desire to be “seen” at the exhibition by virtual voyeurs/ Instafollowers. Press alludes to the superficial isolating nature of the experience. The criticism of the popularity of Kusuma misses the essential reason for the popularity of the exhibition; being there puts the viewer in an infinitely unrealistic, transcendent space.

On Transcendence:

Transcendence is the kind of feeling that is easier to experience than describe. You can use words like awe, intense, time-suspending, and rapturous. In a truly transcendent experience, you lose something—your sense of time, space, or reality. In return, you gain the change to have an experience that feels unquantifiable and irreplaceable. This transcendent state is special and different from mundane existence.

Transcendent experiences break with the mundane in important ways, often with an orientation moment, as accessibility designer Alastair Sommerville notes.  The ideal orientation to something transcendent requires a complete break with the “real” through a disorientation state and into a completely different but meaningful state. User Experience consultant and scholar Elizabeth Buie shares a number of transformative effects in this state: change in beliefs, acceptance, openness, unburdening, comfort, open-mindedness, joyfulness, release, and peace.

Nature is a particularly noteworthy transcendence-trigger. In a 2014 study, students spending time in a eucalyptus grove report feeling less self-centered and satisfied. These students also left the experience with higher levels of the bonding-promoting hormone oxytocin. In other research about transcendence, scholars highlight the important of self-loss. The most affecting moments transcend one’s own self and make you part of something bigger. In other words, transcendent experiences align you with forces outside yourself.

Walking into that Infinite Mirrors, you are outside of anything you know, as such suspending reality, and itself transported into a completely new space. Within that sphere, you can construct something unlike what you know anywhere else. While the selfies seem superficial, taking one places you with many, many others. A shared community is another situation that fosters transcendent experiences, as scholar Elizabeth Buie notes. Shared experiences foster collective, intimate moments aimed at communal purposes. You might be posting pictures of your beautiful face on your Instagram account, but it isn’t because you are a narcissist. You are posting an account of this moment that you can’t even begin to describe in words.

Flow VS Transcendence

Whereas transcendence is one amazing moment, flow is a series of good, solid moments. Transcendence is one insane, mind-blowing love and flow is your solid, steady partner. Both are good, but for different reasons. A good flow builds a movement in space, towards a solid completion. In ideal flow situations, as Stimulant CEO Darren David describes “the act of doing itself is pleasurable, not the outcome or the payoff. We must get people curious about something that’s novel or unusual, but comfortable enough that they won’t instantly opt out because it looks too hard or confusing.”

The flow state is like knowing you can walk across a rope bridge because it is only a few feet over a beautiful calm creek. The trip across is worth it, but you also know if you trip, you won’t get hurt.   Flow is about movement; it can vary from fast to slow.  Flow is when you can solve a problem but without too much stretch of outside your comfort zone (Buie, #UXWeek17).  Flow experiences are rewarding and replicable activities.  Flow fosters knowledge creation supporting meaning-making in safe but challenging ways.

Designers can increase flow through good choices. Intuitive navigation, such as simple signage and systematized pathways, serve as the backbone of flow. Basically, the physical space should help them with overwhelming them; it should be a space that makes them feel in control of their experience. Spaces can be “designed to favor exploration or engagement or energy to achieve certain outcomes.”

What Flow and Transcendent Design Mean for Museums

Here is where the challenge is. Flow should be the bread and butter of museums. They should design spaces that feel comfortable and easy for visitors. If they do, visitors will be willing to take up the challenge of experiencing the spaces (though even then they want self-directed challenges). Yet, museums often focus on collections over visitors. In other words, museums don’t think enough about flow.

Transcendence, on the other hand, is like lightning in a bottle. It is hard to make happen in the exact same way again. As such, no one installation will be the next “Infinite Mirrors.” Sure, there are lessons that can be learned:

  • Make it something totally different.
  • Make sure there is an orientation that breaks with reality.
  • Foster dissonance and suspension of reality.

But, there are infinite ways to get to that state, and yet, there is no one way to get it right.

Much of the backlash against Kusuma is missing an important point. Visitors crave transcendence. They find it all over, in travel, outdoors, in concerts. They want to find it in museums. But, that doesn’t mean that they don’t crave flow. If those visitors of Kusuma don’t convert to museum-goers, it’s not their fault. We don’t spend enough time on flow and then misunderstand awe. In the end, if we don’t spend more energy on both, people will stop coming for either.