06 Oct

Some Thoughts on Partnerships

Partnerships are often human relationships scaffolding financial ones. The stakes can often be high, like a staff-position. And the level of discomfort can be equally high, because partnerships require organizations to relinquish control.

What are some tips on navigating partnerships? Overall, transparency is a means of allowing both parties to understand and mitigate risk while also finding common ground. Articulating and documenting aspects of your collective work create a strong framework for mutual action. Shared success is born out of shared goals and actions. 

Understanding each other

  1. Be transparent about needs, pain points, requirements, etc. to set a culture of honesty and transparency.
  2. Collectively Determine project goals and how that relates to each orgs mission
  3. Share philosophy of work with each other. Look for differences. Discuss where there might be pain points. Discuss possible work arounds for cultural differences.
  4. Agree to shared rules of engagement. Put these rules in writing.
  5. Check in with rules periodically to adapt and improve them.

Planning together

  1. Discuss different ways to get to your shared goal.
  2. Invite everyone to articulate relative merits of each option.
  3. Collectively decide on path and outcome. Determine action-steps
  4. Set check in points

Working together

  1. Articulate how your share work environment should feel
  2. Assume the best of your partners
  3. Model your best way of being 
  4. Check in periodically about how the working relationship is going 
  5. Find numerous ways to celebrate your successes 
  6. Find a capstone to your partnership so you can assess your growth as an org

09 May

Fun is Serious Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nicole Lazzaro’s Concept of Fun

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

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

What are good next steps for museum professionals?

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

More Reading

Museums have a Problem with Fun

Sources

Leisure Time Study

Museums and Leisure

Anatomy of Fun

25 Apr

Technology and Decolonization

Museums feel like they have always been here, like the sky and the seas. But, while the sun has always come up, museums are not a natural phenomenon. They are much more recent, younger than many countries. Museums have their foundations in the Enlightenment and colonialism, two interrelated historic situations. Museums grow from the European impulse to possess the rest of the world.

The idea that museums haven’t been here since the dawn of civilization might be jarring. Museums give off an air of the ahistorical. Gatekeeping is at peak levels in museums. Academic knowledge, a system that trains people to replicate existing knowledge-making processes, is the chief sources of power for staff. Organizations present singular, authoritative narratives in clinical settings. The whole system of museums has society fooled. Think of the oft-quoted idea that museums are the most trusted source of knowledge in our society. Why? Because museums don’t show fissures and uncertainty. Newspapers are responsive, and as such, show their processes; people understand them to be socially-constructed and biased. Museums are certainly biased (#museumsarenotneutral, right), but our systems obfuscate this for visitors.

This field-bias to ignore the constructed-nature of our work makes thinking about decolonization challenging for many. The first step to truly decolonize our work is to admit we are colonial institutions. What does that mean? Stepping back, colonialism is classically defined as the occupation of one nation by another. Colonization, however, is not solely about land. It’s about the transformation of culture and the ways of thinking due to the state of being subjugated by another society. By the time Columbus sailed the ocean blue, our global consciousness had already been irrevocably transformed due to European “expansion”. Therefore, decolonization isn’t just about places or things—it’s about ideas and thought-processes.  As a society, we can’t return to the pre-colonial ways of thinking. There is no going back, because Pandora’s box has been opened and time machines don’t exist. Instead, we need to work to create new systems of thinking that no longer centers colonial meaning-making.

What does this mean for museums? Well, it means that decolonizing isn’t going to be just about returning objects to their original nations. Sometimes this is the right answer. There are situations where objects were taken under duress, sacrifices to the colonial machine. Stolen objects should be returned. Other objects migrated to the West (N. America or Europe) in the way that people have traveled. In our mixed-up world, those objects are as hybrid as human immigrants, between and betwixt. Returning those objects isn’t the answer. What is? Rethinking those objects.

First, and foremost, this requires including voices of the people who are the real authority. For museums, this giving interpretative power to people who are not curators, and admitting having cultural ownership of an object/ idea is more important than a PhD. This move requires changing our systems and rethinking the centers of power. Given knowledge is our power base, this move requires fundamental change. But, also, transforming our means of knowledge creation will improve our content, and therefore, is in line with our missions.

These new voices will help us see our many blinders. Think, for example, about one of the most common norms in encyclopedic collections. Anonymous is a word used in labels when the artist is unknown. Most of the collection objects have unknown artists, but anonymous is commonly only used for objects made in the west in the modern era. Excluding the word anonymous might seem innocuous. But, in effect, it negates the humanity of artists before the modern era.

Technology is in a particularly good position to counteract colonization. Museum technologists work on projects that overlap siloes. They are used to ceding power to outside sources, like vendors or artists. And, technology is very often used in layers means, i.e. not make a physical change to exhibitions. For example, AR is already being used by artists to confront colonialism, and this would be an exceptional way for museums to cede power to outside voices to decolonize galleries. How? I developed a framework and wrote a whole paper about the topic. Give it a read if you want full details.

In short, technology is a collaborative and connective function in museums. It is perfectly poised to serve as a convener and conduit for decolonization. Leading decolonization in museums would have a lasting positive impact on the field.

17 Apr

#OMA2019 Recap : Boards, Front of House, and Conversation Burnout

The Ohio Museums Association had its 2019 conference in Akron this week. I was at the conference as a board member of OMA, eager to hear what we can do for our constituents.

This week in Akron I was reminded of the phrase: All politics is local. Ohio is populous state, classically purple in elections, and historically split politically even in non-election years. People on the coasts might imagine our counties chock full of corn and cows, but my Ohio is one of old steels mills and Big Medicine. We are a state, in effect, that encapsulates much of the complexity that makes our nation great already and maddeningly polarized. I also found a space where Ohio museum professionals could talk to people dealing with the same problems, often with the same audiences or donors. I found local solutions to local problems. Now, while a national conference can be incredibly helpful, I was struck by the power of the local professional community (and while I love Ohio, I am sure all of the state conferences have this vibe). When we talk about the costs of conference travel, and that is a topic for another day, you might also look locally for affordable resources near you.

Center the Right Story: The keynote was given by Sean Kelly of the incomparable Eastern State Penitentiary. He gave a wonderful talk about his organization. I was particularly struck by the way he shared failure and growth in his organization. In reflecting on his talk, I kept thinking about how space is a form of communicating relative importance. When something is central to the organization’s goals, it is given physical space. Kelly mentioned that he noticed in the 1990s and early 2000s the artwork installations dealing with the issues of incarceration were often on the outskirts of the physical space. He realized this was a loss, as he said, mass incarceration is the great civil rights travesty of our era. As such, they centered that story and gave it physical space. (I will note Kelly wins with me, as he kept discussing the staff who did the work of the organization, rather than himself).

Boards: Kelly also gave an interesting talk about leadership. He used a rapid voting system to gauge people’s ideas about change and which groups might be reticent. He then led an interesting discussion about these issues. The topic of boards loomed large. As one director of a historic home mentioned, the challenge can be as a leader predicting what will set off the board. Another discussant mentioned how one board member at an institution put a stop to an important program for fear of looking political. These kinds of stories highlight an important challenge of boards. There is often a great deal of actual power, rather than advisory potential, exerted by boards, with those 15 people, say, having more power individually than most staff. This power struggle can be disappointing for staff, stuck working at the whim of the board. Of course, good boards aren’t able to exert such power, but that requires a strong director. One discussant mentioned that under a good director, we might be scared of the board, but they can be a great resource.

Woes of the Front of House Staff: Kelly also mentioned his surprise at the ways his Front of House staff was reticent to change when the organization changed its interpretation strategy. Kelly also mentioned that he should have realized this challenge and been proactive. Where boards can enact change, FOH staff is often suspect to the forces of change with little agency. They are often underpaid and might need to work many jobs to be able to afford to work in the museum. They are also stuck in dealing with the greatest ire of visitors. It’s a tough job to be FOH. Supporting them goes a long way in improving the visitor experience. I was most interested in a conversation about the burnout vibes staff feels when visitors hoping to push a political agenda argue with staff. Kelly mentioned his staff follows the idea of empathetic listening. His staff doesn’t shut down hard conversations. Another person shared how hard these kinds of situations can be on her staff, who are often being harangued by visitors completely unperturbed with the burden of historical facts. We didn’t come to a solution to the issue of how to support staff in this situation. (and if the staff should be able to shut down conversations based on alternative facts/ or people’s interpretive truths.)

Salary transparency: Michelle Epps of the National Emerging Museum Professionals Network spoke passionately about her organization’s desire to improve working conditions in part by pushing organizations to publish salaries of job openings. The move to salary transparency is huge for the field. It allows people to potentially entering the field to understand salary. Employers are saved interviewing people who can’t afford to move for certain salaries. Of course, it also exposes the low salaries of some parts of the field and the inequity within other parts. But even that can be good for the field, potentially improving salaries in the long run.

Diversity isn’t a Trend: Diversity was an interesting thread through the conversations. Salary is a diversity issue, for example. When entry-level salary ranges are low, applicants will likely come from higher income brackets that can help buoy low earnings. Diversity was also part of some of the Front of House conversations. FOH is often one of the most diverse workforces in the sector (especially guards). These employees are often part-time and are offered fewer self-care supports than full-time staff. Finally, many people were struggling with how their organizations and constituents understand diversity. Diversity isn’t about looking a certain way. Adding one person of color, say, won’t check the box of diversity. It’s about systemic change where the organization and its staff act and think a different way

04 Dec

Year-End Review: Thinking about Your Use of Time

an hourglass

The year is winding down. Many organizations are near the halfway point of their fiscal year. This is the right time to take stock on your work and processes. You have time to improve processes for the second half of the year.

Where should you start when you take stock? You might start with the way you and your organization use time. Why? Time is the greatest resource your organization has and the one that you most likely squander. Before thinking about next steps, let’s think a little bit about the relationship between time and work.

Salary and Time

Most organizations give the most work to staff who work on a salary. Those people are paid a flat rate, and if they are exempt from overtime, their pay does not increase even if their workload does. In the short-term, organizations can get more work for less when they add labor to their salaried staff. The workload is often allocated based on prior performance. Work hard, and you might be congratulated with more work (and no raise.)

Often, workers find it challenging to mitigate overwork. They might not be able to explain their workload stresses to their managers. They might not have any colleagues who can take on some of their workloads. They might feel too cash-strapped or work uncertain to want to make waves. However, in the end, they will have to accomplish the work.

But, in considering the workload struggles, it is often that you are being required to work beyond what you were contracted for. In other words, you are not receiving immediate financial benefits from this extra work. You’re gambling your time away in hopes of earning future financial benefits. As they say in Vegas, the house almost always wins. Organizations will benefit from you working beyond your salaried requirements.

What can you do about overwork?

This is probably the hardest question to answer. You entered your career because you love the work. You want to do your best. You might have a long history of feeling successful thanks to hard work during graduate school. Overwork might be your natural inclination.

First, you need to reconsider your feelings about your workload. You need to be honest with yourself about all the work you do. What tasks have been added since your salary was negotiated? How have these tasks impacted your time? What is the benefit to you to do these tasks? Are these tasks worth it for you and/ or for your organization? Basically, you need to tally if the time you are donating to your organization is worth it to you.

Next, you need to decide when your time is being wasted due to your own poor habits:

  1. Email is the biggest suck of time. I am a reformed obsessive email checker. I understand the way that it can feel to have things lurking in your email. I also understand the spark you can feel when you see the number of emails increase. But, obsessively checking email is just a way of letting people chip away at your time and sanity. Check email at specified times in your day, like at lunch and at the end of the day. Follow through with this plan for a few weeks, and you will train your colleagues about your new emailing behaviors.
  2. Meetings are a time suck that you can’t completely control. When you run the meeting, come with an agenda and leave with action items. Immediately return to your space, finish any tasks that are easy to accomplish like emailing your notes back to the team. Basically, don’t let the meeting suck more time than absolutely necessary.
  3. Choose when you waste time otherwise you will waste time uncontrollably. Breaks are a great way to increase your productivity. This might seem counter-intuitive. But, think about running a long race. You will not be able to sprint the whole distance. You need to pace yourself. Work is the same way. If you don’t find a way to create downtime, you will instead waste time pretending to work. (Another useful analogy might be snacking. Avoid eating for a long time, and you will find yourself stuffing your face full of potato chips instead of a healthy meal.)

Managing for Sanity

Managing others is often the source of overwork. You are often assigned a series of your own work tasks plus the work of managing others. But management isn’t just an asterisk on one’s workload. Good managers understand the importance of investing time in your staff. Any task that requires more than one person takes exponentially longer than something you do alone.

How can you value your time but also value your staff?

  1. First, put in time at the onset. Set up systems that work for you and your staff. Give them the time they need consistently so that you don’t get burned down the road with a more time-consuming problem.
  2. Don’t ignore staff emails. Of all your emails, your own staff emails should be the most important to answer. Triaging those emails efficiently will save you time in the long run. (Also, communicate an email policy to your staff so that you know that they are communicating in ways that work for both of you. Consider asking staff to add “Attention Needed” flags to items that need your answer and “FYI” to the subject line of emails that are just notifications.)
  3. Systematize as many management tasks as you can. Do payroll the same every time. Create form emails as often as you can. But, do not systematize the personal things, like making personal connections to your staff.
  4. Don’t waste your time doing your staff’s job. Micromanaging feels bad on both the receiving end, but it actually feels bad on the managing end as well. Micromanaging can occur for a number of reasons. You might not be confident in your staff. If this is the case, reconfigure how you communicate expectations to the staff and how you evaluate success. You might be micromanaging because your staff is accomplishing their work using a different process than you use. In this case, if the work is accomplished well, you need to let go of your need to control the process. Remember, the variety of solutions signals a staff that your department can fix many different problems.

Conclusion

Overall, you need to be an advocate for your time. You need to analyze how you use your time and understand why you make those choices. You also need to understand how and why you are using your time with your colleagues and your staff. Your time is a resource that you cannot get back. And, your time is worth more than you probably earn.

 

20 Nov

#MCN2018 Recap

Most years, on my plane back from MCN, I am furiously typing up notes from sessions. This year, I was volunteer co-chair and Human-Centered Design SIG co-chair. As a result, I was ever-present but not always there when it came to sessions. However, I had a better sense of what people felt about what they heard. Here are the five ideas I heard most often:

AI, Machines, and Thoughtfulness:

Amber Case said in her keynote, “I don’t want to be a systems administrator in my own home.” She was alluding to the prevalence of digitally-enabled devices in contemporary life. Museums are now more commonly using iBeacons, RFIDs, and other tools that collect data on patrons. This data can be incredibly useful for improving experience and operations, however, data collection is also incredibly challenging. First, and foremost, data is a responsibility. Our institutions need to be thoughtful about honoring our tacit relationship with our visitors to treat them well, including by treating their data well. We also need to help visitors understand how we use data, anonymize data as often as possible, and be thoughtful in the conclusions we draw from the data. Finally, visitor data is only one part of decision-making. Staff feedback is an essential tool. Most museums do a poor job of aggregating staff data on visitor experience and an even poorer job of honoring and acting on that data.

Humans make Mistakes:

No person is faultless but many museums are still reticent to be honest about failures. Sharing failures and working collaboratively across institutions to find better solutions could save the field money and headache in the long run. Many museum professionals find strictures prevent them from being honest with peers at other institutions. They also find it challenging to find places other than conferences to share their challenges, particularly places where they can publish failures.

Humans together are better than apart or against each other:

Collaboration remains a perennial topic. Collaboration with other organizations is particularly hard for many as their internal systems are in disrepair. Even when collaboration is successful, many of the collaborative projects are grant-funded, or time-restricted. The lessons learned about collaboration are often not folded into the museum processes.

Bias isn’t Mitigated without Action:

Everything is biased because humans are. Data is created by humans and therefore biased. Many of our technology-projects are outcome-focused and deadline-driven, like a DAM that must launch in six-weeks or an interactive for an exhibition. Timelines and ignorance have meant that these technology projects have often been produced without considering and mitigating bias.

Design for Accessibility is Actually Good for All:

Accessibility and inclusion are about being thoughtful to accommodate the widest range of people. But, in doing so, everyone is helped. Accessibility, however, doesn’t happen by accident. Thought must be taken to make the right choices so all patrons are included. While upfront cost might make this seem frivolous, the increase in audience engagement for the broadest audience makes designing for all worth it. User Experience Design, Service Design, and Human-Centered Design are useful ways for organizations to make sure to develop accessible projects. These processes can be adopted by all types of professionals. There are many resources, including these from me and MCN’s HCD SIG workshop. (Join by DMing @artlust).

Girl Surrounded by Technology objects

Conclusion

Overall, while the conferences was called humanizing the digital, I felt that the conference was really about humans and their existence in a dense digital environment. The ideal is to create digital that does not destroy nor negate our humanity. This ideal will only occur with careful thought. When digital is seen as the medium and not the message or the meaning, people are able to have superlative experiences.

 

Finally, I heard over and over that MCN is attendee’s annual chance to recharge and reconnect with champions. The MCN community comes out in full force at the conference. For some of us, it remains with us during the rest of the year, like on social media. Yet, many people mentioned how they wished they had more chances to share ideas, like in publications. Think of how much better the field would be next year if all of the 500 plus attendees shared one idea to a peer at their institution, one idea to a supervisor/ director, and one broadly to the field. These ideas could be shared in emails, tweets, talks, blog posts, published articles, or books. The community of MCN is only as strong as its participants and their strength is in their ideas. By sharing these ideas, attendees can exponentially expand the good happening in the field.

25 Sep

Setting the Stage for Great AR/ VR Projects

Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) are tantalizing prospects for museums. These technologies offer museums a chance to engage visitors differently, while at the same time appearing cutting-edge.

In early September, the American Alliance of Museums and the Knight Foundation fostered a conversation about immersion. Museum professionals along with practitioners discussed AR, VR, and Immersion. Their conversations touched on some of the tensions that museum professionals feel about this new technology.

Cost was foremost amongst people’s concerns. Museums consistently feel the pinch of tight budgets. New technology can be a chance to gain additional funding, through grants. These grants might mean that the project costs are separate from the operating budget, but the organization can still be taxed. New projects pull capacity from existing projects.

Staff also feared the motivations and effects of implementing such projects. Many organizations might jump into “shiny new” projects without shoring up their internal capacity and infrastructure. Managers often lack the knowledge to make good decisions about digital. As a result, projects can fail even before they are launched.

These challenges are valid. AR and VR remain newer technology. Their impact on the museum-goers remains somewhat uncertain. Without clear impact studies, implementation costs can be hard to justify. The risks seem enormous.

However, the gains are greater. Immersion offers visitors new ways to engage. Both technology and non-technology immersion are becoming an important form of engagement throughout society.  Museums risk more by not considering AR, VR, and immersion. The tools might not be right for all museums, but its imperative for museum professionals to understand immersive tools well enough to make informed decisions for their constituencies.

Ideally, museum professionals start by focusing on the visitor experience (VX) as a big picture. Everything within the institution should connect to their overall VX strategy. Then, they need to take stock of their internal abilities, both interpretive and technological. This step is essential but also challenging. Museums are often unable to assess holes in their capacity. Consultants can be helpful in lending an outside eye to determine the state of things. This foundation is essential before moving forward on any AR/VR project.

With the price tag in mind, museums might invest in AR/VR projects with permanency in mind. This approach is foolhardy. Instead, museums should go in planning obsolesce. Ignoring change will not make the pace of technological evolution slow. Focusing on the content can help stem some of the fear of investing in ephemeral technology. The ideas content will be evergreen even if the technology changes.

If AR or VR is the right tool for the ideas and the audience, the museum should develop processes that foster experimentation and iteration. Ideal processes should involve research, not just testing. Staff from many departments should be involved and make an impact on the project, not solely senior executives or tech staff. Early in the project the whole team should confirm the goals, outcomes, and define a common language.

AR and VR can be extraordinary or unnecessary, with the difference being the implementation. All engagement fails when it is produced thoughtlessly. Museum AR and VR projects will fail if they focus on the technology rather than the ideas. However, focusing on ideas alone is not enough. The organization has to be ready to launch such projects. Most museums require internal growth and planning to be able to develop successful AR and VR projects. But, these changes can reap huge benefits in meeting visitors in new, exciting ways.

18 Sep

Immersion and Museums

In early September, the Knight Foundation sponsored an event at the Detroit Institute of Arts called Immersion in Museums: AR, VR or Just Plain R?. Here are some reflections from the day.  

Waning attendance has museum professionals seeking novel ways to increase audiences. Many institutions are looking to immersive technology as salvation for their visitation woes. Technology alone, however, will not ensure the future of museum attendance. Museums need to develop engaging, immersive experiences to buoy to transform their attendance.

Museums, Technology, and Immersion Now

Technology appeals to museum executives hoping to counteract criticism of being stodgy or old-fashioned. While a decade ago museums often placed technology in sequestered spaces creating an immersive environment by virtue of their physical installation, the most successful recent technology projects are informational rather than immersive. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art gained wide notoriety for their SendMe SFMOMA project, where users could text words to receive corresponding objects. The millions of users increased their awareness of SFMOMAs collection through short, transactional moments. SendMeSFMOMA’s success was predicated on employing mainstream tools to deliver surprising content. Akron Art Museum’s Dot Chatbot is like a virtual educator, answering questions in real time.

At the same time, museums are in the midst of a non-technology immersion trend. Yayoi Kusuma’s exhibition, Infinite Mirrors, invites people to walk into transformative spaces, many employing mirrors to heighten the effect. The exhibition sold out in venues across the country, with second-party sellers asking hundreds of dollars for a single ticket. While Kusuma’s earliest rooms date to the 1960s, her work’s popularity increased exponentially, thanks to cell phones and social media. Celebrities like Beyonce and Ivanka Trump proudly posted pictures of themselves in her Infinite Mirrors exhibition on their Instagram. The success of the exhibition can be seen as due to the popular zeitgeist rather than the immersive qualities of the works. Visitors want to visit the rooms to photograph themselves in the space.

However, Kusuma’s recent spike in popularity has spawned many immersive museum experiences. The Museum of Ice Cream, the Museum of Selfies, and the Color Factory are examples of immersive spaces. Rather than looking at collections, visitors play in installations. The most successful built immersive experience is not a museum at all, but the artist-made space, MeowWolf, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Artists Golda Blaise and Vince Kadlubek, in collaboration with a larger team, turned an abandoned bowling alley into an interactive artwork. Speaking in Detroit, Kadlubek noted that immersive experiences allow people the agency to drive their engagement. In the MeowWolf experience, visitors are awarded for their curiosity with sensory excess and pleasure. Immersion is a positive feedback loop that drives the enjoyment.

Low-tech immersion has a long history in museums. Specimens and artworks from the world over flooded into Western collections displayed to quell the voracious European intellectual interests. Beginning in 1812, John Soane, an early prophet of museums, filled his London home with his collection of 45,000 objects.  Visitors today, like those of Soane’s time, can be awed, inspired, and even overwhelmed by Soane’s collecting prowess. Public museums in the 19th century continued Soane’s practice of displaying objects in dense groupings. Salon hanging, or hanging works in multiple stacked tiers, was common practice for most major art collections well into the 20th century. The sheer volume of art in one space inspired delight and wonder in visitors. Everyone could find something that appealed.

The physical space of the early museums were also immersive environments. Most early museums included fine details throughout from detailed floors, vaulted ceilings, and adorned exterior architecture. This attention to detail was meant to elicit specific feelings in visitors. Consider the fine exterior courtyard of the Victoria and Albert Museum, with its extraordinary mosaic tile scenes depicting artisans in action. Visitors, then and now, feel the transformative effect of spending a few minutes cosseted from the hubbub of London street, seated on the cool grass, surrounded by the awe-inspiring built environment.

Museum practices have moved away from chock-a-block installations and baroque spaces in the two hundred years since Soane’s time. American museums particularly have moved towards thinned out galleries surrounded by empty wall space. Museum professionals often suggest sparse installations allow visitors the chance to examine collections closely.

Immersion in Society

As museum practice has become more rarified, everyday life has become more immersive. Most visitors walking into museums have experienced some form of brand immersion. Most stores have a music playlist carefully chosen to project their company culture. Walking through the aisles, the shopper is unconsciously being immersed into the feel of their brand.

Explicitly immersive experiences are big business, as well. Disney makes billions annually on visitors hoping to escape into a different reality. Disney draws on decades of immersive education to deliver seamless experiences to visitors by blending built space with technology. Most visitors notice the attention to detail in the built space that makes fictional spaces manifest. However, Disney also exemplifies the hallmark of immersive experiences. Heightened experiences require playing with multiple senses. Disney subtly controls every sense in their spaces, including smell. With the mechanics hidden, the Disney visitor can be transformed into worlds that never existed.

Successful experiences do not need built space to be immersed. Video games are a $108.9 billion industry partly thanks to their highly immersive nature. Setting aside virtual reality and augmented reality for the moment, most video games have all the hallmarks of immersive experiences. Games are designed to make players feel as if they have entered the world of the game. The effect is so compelling that players often lose all sense of time as they become subsumed by the experience. People playing games feel empathy for their digital simulacrum in the game. The immersive nature of video games, like in Disney, is a carefully manufactured effect. Designers craft compelling storylines and build out complex digital spaces complete auditory effects and sounds. Players respond by feeling completely transported to the game world.

The appetite for immersive leisure has fueled intense interest in virtual reality and augmented reality. Virtual reality is a technology tool, usually accessed through a visor-headset, let’s users explore a world in 360-degrees. Augmented reality adds a virtual layer to reality, say through using a mobile app that combines input from a camera with digital content.  Virtual reality uses technology to take people to new places, while augmented reality brings new places into people’s current reality.

These technologies remain in their pioneer phase. Consumer behaviors will help the scale of success and diffusion of VR and AR. Pokemon Go is oft noted as being the first successful AR game. In the game, players capture figures who seemingly appear in their actual surroundings, as pictured in the app. The player’s wonderment and delight are predicated on the juxtapositions between their world and another reality. The New York Times, under Maureen Towey, has been producing virtual reality videos that use cell phones and Google Cardboard. Towey noted at the Detroit convening that this medium allows people to explore in 360 degrees just as they view their real world. The NYTimesVR endeavor is seen as an extension of their existing work. These short videos are framed to tell immersive stories. Through experiencing video of the Land of Salt and Fire, for example, consumers delve into a story about Ethiopia’s Afar people.

Consumer behavior outside the museum sphere affects their desires for institutions. The trend for immersive exhibitions, therefore, is as much a product of the appetite for immersive games as an interest in being able to take trendy social media photographs. Therefore, museums would be remiss to ignore immersion as a form of visitor engagement. Immersive engagement is within the museum’s historical underpinnings.

Museums and the Future of Immersion

A few museums have had real success using technology to enhance reality. The Canadian Human Rights Museum had a well-reviewed virtual reality experience helping patrons understand the lives of Guatemalan women. The Knight Foundation-funded Detroit Institute of Art’s Lumin experience uses AR to deliver interpretation about the collection. While there are differences between these experiences, an important similarity connects them—they are visually-driven technology-mediated interpretive tools. Technology allows museums to break away from textual interpretation. Engaging patrons using other senses and forms of meaning-making is an important step in diversifying audiences.

These early museum AR/VR projects, though, only hint at the future of museum immersion. For the possibilities to come to fruition, however, the field needs to transform many of its processes. Immersion requires placing visitor experience above content goals. For museums, moving towards a human-centered design can be challenging. Museums are more comfortable at broadcasting information based on their internal, curatorial goals. This status quo is antithetical to the ideal processes needed to create compelling, immersive experiences. However, if museums are willing to move towards visitor-centered experience design, their audience and reach will expand greatly. The trade-off is the long run is a worthy one. Immersive experiences offer museums a future where huge audiences are a reality.

09 Aug

Some Solutions to the White Supremacy in Museums

White supremacy is not something easily solved in our society, with millenia of problems to counteract. Yet, the scale of the problem should not be a deterrent to action. A previous post helped set up the meaning of the phrase white supremacy, but it is useful to continue to discuss the term.

Most of the actions that support inequity and the power position of white society are subtle and constant. Inaction is a form of action. For example, when museums do not discuss race, they are choosing to maintain the current order. Museums have a great opportunity to help increase equity in our society.

What types of actions are white supremacy?

This diagram can help clarify the types of issues that contribute to the culture of white supremacy. Many more actions occur daily at the lower level of the pyramid. Those actions create the foundation of society, and in many ways, form the culture upon which the more overt actions occur. While the overt actions are shocking, the covert actions are often more pernicious. Understanding these covert actions, and then need to subvert them, is the first step in transforming white supremacy. After all, as many protest signs have stated, white silence is white compliance.

What are some examples?

Communication & Signals: Sharing ideas that ignore race or imply issues about race

Style Guide:

Most institutions have a style guide that (hopefully) ensures communication consistency. These documents are the organization’s linguistic choices codified and formalized, servings as the editor’s measuring stick for all textual output. Organizations often focus on certain elements of the style guide, like brand issues, but ignore cultural competency issues.

For example, many organizations continue to use the word “slave” over “enslaved person.” Any long-time label writer can attest to the horror of wasted words. But, at organizational level, this choice places the need to maintain word count over expressing a nuanced understanding of the humanity and horror of the state of enslaving people.

Solution: Work with bias trainers to refine your style guide.

Interpretation Strategy:

Writing about collections is enormously challenging. Writers are working with limited space and unlimited possibilities; visitors are completely variable in their desires and needs. Every exhibition is mounted as a good faith effort to balance the organization’s need and the visitors. Yet, very often, exhibition planners (curators, educators, designers, etc.) do not consider cultural competency issues, like race, when working through their installations. When space is at a premium, intellectually and physically, interpretation often decides to focus on the issues that can be tackled easily. Avoiding issues like race, colonialism, etc. only serves to support the status quo.

Solution: Lead conversations during interpretation planning to discuss the ramifications of decisions.

Marketing Imagery:

Marketing photographs are usually chosen to project the ideal audience demographic, a visualization of the diversity the organization seeks. This racial diversity is often unfulfilled dream. Visitors attending the organization, expecting a certain audience demographic, find themselves amongst a different audience entirely. Using images that misrepresent the audience is dishonest. They set up expectations for the incoming visitors. If the organization is not actually prepared to make those visitors comfortable, for example if security and front-line staff have not had extensive cultural competency training, visitors will suffer.

Solutions: Be purposeful in your imagery choices, and ensure your staff is prepared for changes to your audience demographics

Gallery Sequencing:

Gallery sequencing might feel easy, following a canonical path. Art museums might choose to set things up according to the chronological march of time. Natural history museums might choose to split organic and inorganic specimens. But, every choice is imbued with cultural norms, often dripping with white supremacy. Natural history museums, for example, often hold collections of native American art, though don’t hold corresponding collections from other American cultures. The placement of these galleries can project uncomfortable and inappropriate meaning. Placing native American collections near collections about the evolution of man, for example, can imply Native Americans are less “evolved.” Certainly, curators might not believe this, however the space juxtapositions can still imply this to visitors.

Solution: This problem can be incredibly hard to solve. Gallery cannot easily be moved without massive financial ramifications. If you are in the position to do a resequencing, spend time talking through the choices, ideally with a bias consultant. However, if not, then find ways to communicate challenges with your visitors. Meet any possible misunderstanding head on with your interpretation.

Decision-making: The business of running museums can maintain the current status quo

Tokenism: Hiring practices in museums can certainly be a full blog post. But, in short, the credentialing-based hiring and unspoken requirement of unpaid internships ensures that staff positions are drawing from a small privileged group of applicants. Museums often expand their applicant expectations, say for community engagement positions. In other words, people of color are being relegated to a few jobs associated with working with people of color. Basically, these hiring practices bring a few individuals into the existing culture, all but maintaining the current order.

Solution: Again, this could be the subject of a blog post. But, internally, the issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and access need to be considered thoroughly and thoughtfully. Hiring in staff without internal change only exacerbates the problem.

Community Engagement: Engagement programs can be incredibly transformative for organizations, but only if they allow for the transformation. When such programs are siloed, their impact on the organization is localized. In other words, community engagement often supports the status quo, creating a culture of special interest (segregated) programming that runs in parallel with the general programming. For community engagement to truly transform white supremacy in an organization, it has to become central to all work and the job of everyone.

Solution: Leadership needs to make transforming the audience everyone’s job, then they need to increase internal capacity across the board to do so.


 

Thanks to Hrag of Hyperallergenic on his post about Newark Museum’s labels that got me thinking about this topic. The Newark Museum is obviously doing something right, as they have made the decision to move away from anonymous.

07 Aug

Museums & White Supremacy

White supremacy is a phrase that can startle people. For many people, the phrase connotes men in white sheets marching under cover of night fighting anonymously for a minority vision of our society. These white extremists certainly fall within the definition of white supremacy, but they are not the defining aspect of the concept.

What is white supremacy?

White supremacy is a system that maintains the structure with the white culture at the top of society. For many people, this actuality of white supremacy is challenging. There is the cognitive dissonance between their belief that white supremacy is a minority opinion counter to our pluralistic society. Being confronted with the idea that wholly contradicts their original opinion can be jarring. But, being forced to see themselves mentally aligned with such vilified members of our society can seem repugnant and repellent. Most members of our society attempt to perform “anti-racism,” i.e., they act in ways that appear inclusive. So, to learn that their actions and the society they live in is in line with the KKK, well, that can feel either earth-shaking or completely false. Either way, without coming to terms with the reality of white supremacy, people cannot work toward racial equity.

Our cultural structures are so imbued with white supremacy as to have become nearly invisible. For example, the English language has become the norm globally. Even nations that had never succumbed to the English empire, advertisements run taglines for products in English. Coca-Cola anyone? American capitalism is equally pervasive. I would be hard-pressed to imagine a single adult in the world who is without some knowledge of an American product, like a brand, actor, or idea. Western society has become our global given.

What do these economic and cultural givens have to do with white supremacy?

First, English is a language, perhaps the language, of white colonialism, the greatest propagator of white supremacy our society has ever known. Even as the economy of colonialism has largely waned, the language maintains many of those ties. Many smaller languages have given way to the power of English, the language of commerce and success. But, with a new language comes a new idea. The English language serves to support the dispersal of cultural norms as well. Any bilingual person knows that translation is an approximation, at best. And, English has forced many cultural ideas into other societies, leaving much of the pre-English ideas lost in translation.

Economics also has its part in white supremacy. The means of production since the Industrial Revolution has been held by the few, and those few have been white. Even as society has slowly transformed with more non-white people gaining ground economically, largely the system has been constructed to maintain this order. This economic reality can be incredibly jarring for people. Often, the iconic poor white miner is levied as a rhetorical brick against this reading of white supremacy. After all, aren’t there black people with Harvard degrees eating caviar while this poor white miner remains jobless in Appalachia? Of course, both people described certainly exist. But, those individuals do nothing to undo the economics of white supremacy, and in fact, they both serve to support the theory. An Ivy-league educated American black person remains a minority.

Given that most black Americans can trace their history in this nation back farther the many White Americans, the lower rates of matriculation of black Americans at Ivy League institutions should be shocking. Think about this. Black people have been in American for hundreds of years, speaking this language, living in this culture, and yet, someone whose grandparents spoke no English has more likelihood, statistically, of matriculating to an Ivy League school. So, what’s the variable? Race. We live in a society where if you are white, you are unmarked. Therefore, you can live within the scrutiny of color. Now, you might be given a silver spoon and the corner office, but white people are not hamstrung by their race. So, black American is succeeding despite the mark of their skin color, and often as one of very few to follow that path. In the story of the black Harvard grad, there are two hallmarks of white supremacy. The road of being a solo person of color in a competitive field is exhausting and intense. Career and academic isolationism, due to few people of color reaching high levels, maintain the current order. But, even more telling, the black Harvard grad is often seen as a product of affirmative action, as if their merit was not equal to white students. The underlying belief is that the playing field was not equal. Certainly, the playing field was not equal. White people have the ability to move within the academic and economic society without the baggage of race. That mobility is an enormous boon, and likely one of the greatest mechanisms that propagate white supremacy.

This mobility is also underlying the issues of the white miner. That people would see a poor white person as proof that white supremacy exists is the ultimate marker of white supremacy. The argument is that white supremacy can’t exist if there are white people who are poor. The corollary to that argument would be that all white people must be above all people of color. In other words, that argument is complete within the norms of white supremacy, where whiteness is an essential state of being. If whiteness was the issue there, the poor miner could be any color, and the argument would be about the shrinking periphery in our society. But, instead, his poverty is seen as surprising because he is white, i.e., of the privileged state in our society.

What do this poor miner and black Harvard grad have to do with museums?

Whiteness is inextricably linked to the work of museums. Museums are part of the Western (white) society. Often collections are born of the very colonial state that propagated white supremacy. Art museums certainly hold collections born of colonialism, such as Asian and African collections. But, other museums also profited from colonialism. Fossils from all around the world call Western nations home, for example. Even the very idea of collecting and cataloging is a Western one. Denying this history does not negate it, but instead allows this history to subvert any changes we attempt to put in place. After all, we know that the monster under the bed has more power when unseen and threatening; once faced, its hold dissipates quickly.

However, language and translation might be some of the most useful elements of white supremacy that permeates museums. Museums attempt to share ideas with patrons to help them connect to collections (and share collections to connect patrons to ideas). In other words, museums are basically communicators. This places museums in a power position. They have the power to chose what is communicated and how. Often, museums communicate in ways that support the current order, and therefore they support white supremacy.

Museum staff remains largely white, so the nuance of language and the bigger cultural issues of white supremacy often feel academic, which gets us back to our miner and Harvard grad. The class is certainly an issue in museums, but generally, many more white people of lower classes have been able to pass into the upper levels of museum administration than people of color. Diversity and inclusion efforts have brought in more people of color, but the numbers are low. People of color, therefore, become isolated and often disenchanted.

So, what can museums do?

There are many ways, small and large, that museums can deal with white supremacy in their work. First, though, museum professionals need to face up to the fact that white supremacy is a lot more than guys in sheets and that they are part of the problem. Museum professionals need to think about what white supremacy means within society and within their work. Without coming to terms with the fact that white supremacy is a powerful state that has suffused our society, they have no hope of moving towards a racially equitable state.

On Thursday, we will have some concrete examples of white supremacy in museum work.