The Sweet Spot for Interpretation & Questions for the Whole Team

 

The ideal interpretive approach is about blending staff ideas with visitor insights. First and foremost, the team should consider and understand what visitors want from your organization using formal evaluation. Without this information, your organization is working blind.

With that research in hand, the team needs to spend some time working together dealing with big issues. A previous colleague used to call these types of meetings the come to Jesus meetings. While I don’t have that same cultural reference, I would say that these are the courtship meetings. These meetings help you learn about each other and your ideas about your collections. The questions in the graphic solicit anecdotal ideas about visitors as well as input about institutional culture/mores. Organizations often ignore staff input about visitors as being less important than formal visitor research. This move is wasteful. As long as the anecdotal input is balanced with research, this staff insight should not be disregarded. Staff members of all types are experts in visitors; don’t discount this rich source for information.

Ideally, internal staff input, such as the answers to these questions, are balanced with visitor research to develop the sweet spot organization. Each organization will have a different sweet spot. In the end, your team can develop a document that articulates the following:

  • Visitors Want:
  • Visitors will feel:
  • Visitors will understand:
  • Ideal experience
  • Experience limits
  • Ideal content tone
  • Content limits
  • Culture Norms
  • Institutional Limits

Before you start this process, make sure everyone on you have a strong understanding of each how work culture can affect the process. 

The Sweet-Spot in Interpretive Approach & the Politics of Mounting Installations

 

Helping visitors engage in collections is a primary concern for museums. Museum professionals often partner with various vendors, consultants, and partners to do this work, for example commissioning firms to develop interactives for exhibitions. Mounting these installations can be exhausting and rife with interpersonal challenges. Visitors walking into spaces, ideally, have no idea how contentious and challenging mounting installations can be, thankfully.  Even if the customer experience appears alright, the staff experience should not suffer to mount such installations.

What causes interpersonal challenges in mounting spaces and installations?

I have always loved the phrase lock-step and turn-key. Both phrases scream efficiency, ease, simplicity, and replicability. None of these adjectives would be useful in describing the mounting of a collection space. Collections managers and database administrators work had to make systematize collection data. But short of digital systems, most things about collections are complexity and nuance. Objects come to museums for their rarity and complications. Installations are meant to help people with little background knowledge fall into love (like) with an object. Collectively, the work of the people mounting an installation/ exhibition is to bewitch/ bemuse the public.

Getting visitors from 0-60 about collections is a tall order and its one about which every person (either on staff or on contract) feels passionate. Emotions can run high, and the stakes can feel enormous. People on the teams come with different expertise; each person seems the DMZ and faultlines in the process differently and through the lens of their own professional role.  For example, while a curator might understand the nuance between using certain phrases (say artwork vs artifact), others on the team see these as unimportant arguments. Everyone on the team is often placed in the position of arguing their corner, and everyone can come out of the process feeling bruised.

 

Lucille Ball Eating GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

How can these challenges be mitigated?

Everyone on the team is hoping to get an interpretation for installations that is interesting and easy to use without compromising the museum’s reputation. This sweet-spot is a bit of a holy grail. But, diminishing inter-personal challenges and developing better systems is essential to improving interpretation. Sound systems result in superior products, and broken systems result in subpar products. Think of how a broken conveyor belt will not be able to create wonderful chocolates.

The first step in developing a good working process is to agree that ideal interpretation and installations need to be easy to access, understandable, and grounded in research. Like a three-headed dog, these three elements have to work in concert to go forward. Often museums allow their legacy to serve an anchor preventing action towards innovation and excellence. Museums can also be fooled by the newest fads to skew too far away from their core competencies.

After agreeing to collective and balanced actions, teams need to determine more practical issues, such as work plans, sign-offs, and tone. Underlying these practical issues the teams need to decide and articulate the no-go zones for their institution. Every institution has issues that cannot be discussed easily. Donor issues and collection histories often top these lists. In working with teams, I like to put these issues on paper. This process can feel uncomfortable. But, these lists are also freeing, in that one person on the team is not required to be the guardian of these verboten topics.

Finally, any good plan needs some follow through. Often, the best-laid intentions are destroyed because there is no big stick. Museum staff managers are rarely given training on deescalating emotional conflict; a fear of conflict is epidemic in many museum senior staff members. With so much work and so little time & money, who can fault these managers. The result is a culture of conflict-avoiding people finding ways to step around and then crashing into challenging personalities. When I have worked on successful installation and interpretative teams, there is a person who is judge, jury, room mother, and traffic controller. (Ideally, the team has been set up so that everyone is on their best behavior and everyone understands they are in this together FOR the visitor, so challenges don’t bubble up.)

Conclusion

Interpretative work is basically like all human to human communication, prone to emotions and challenges. In installation work, the bigger challenge might be that the people starting the conversations about the collections (the staff) are not actually present with the receivers (the visitors). The installations, from signs to interactives, need to speak to visitors on their own. When the systems create these installations are smooth, the conversations can go singingly.

 

On Thursday, we will talk about questions teams can ask themselves to hit the ideal sweet spot for interpretation. 

This topic also ties in with a previous post about the relationship between interpretation and research.

Content Strategy Matrix for Developing Compelling Content (Graphic)

The best writing is complex. Persuasive text needs to inform in order to convince the reader. Inspiring texts often grow from a kernel of fact. Enjoyable texts are the best way to feed people information. While creative writers have more latitude to move their readers, every writer needs to understand how to balance these aspects of the written text.

In informational or interpretive text, non-specialists have a low threshold for information overload. Entertainment is a wonderful way to engage people information, like a spoon full of sugar. Convincing and inspiring people is much more challenging in interpretive text than in creative text.  Convincing people with ideas is often about arming them with relevant ideas. Inspirational texts are, perhaps, the hardest types of interpretive texts. Inspiration often requires empathy and emotional engagement, a tall order for most interpretive text. But, some of the most successful types of inspirational text balance information, persuasion, and inspiration.

 

 

 

While each text needs to balance the different elements, overall, when working on interpretative content for an exhibition, the writer should be aware that each element has a different weight. Think about reading heavy, emotional text; you can only take so much. On the other hand, humorous or entertaining text can be read by the ream. Therefore, be thoughtful when constructing an exhibition to weigh the various aspects.

 

Thinking Systematically about Content / Interpretation in #Museums

 

Thinking systematically about content creation requires having a facile ability to navigate between communicating the overall idea and articulating the component concepts. The ideal systematic thinker is both a big picture and detail-oriented person. While some people seem naturally able to employ systematic thinking, practice can help anyone become more capable of working systematically.

Why Systematic Thinking for Content Creation?

We all think differently with varied knowledge bases and ideological beliefs. Good communicators are able to frame their ideas in ways that address the cognitive complexity of humans. Strong communication frames complexity simply.

Every writer who creates a paragraph that communicates an idea has practiced systematic thinking. Good writers develop themes by knitting together persuasive, satisfying sentences into a compelling, cohesive message. Writers focus on the parts as well as the whole when they ply their craft. Each sentence matters as much as the paragraph as a whole in order to ensure that the message is communicated.

Content-creation requires the same type of systematic thinking. Exhibitions, labels, interactives are just like that paragraph–tools to share a complex message simply.

How?

Just as writing takes practice, content planning is a honed skill. Putting together ideas is not like simple math. Rather than a simple jigsaw puzzle, most messages need to be communicated using a series of complex and overlapping ideas. When interconnected in a certain manner, these ideas come together to express the message.

Just as writers are usually big readers, good content creators explore how others share messages. Be a purposeful consumer. Notice how the ideas are combined to express a message. Make value judgments about the efficacy of the message communication.  This type of thoughtful communication, paired with actual practice with content creation, will improve your ability to communicate well.

 

Visitor-Centered means Object-Centered

 

Over the last few years, there have been some heated debates behind the scenes of museum education offices about the ways that visitors should be engaged. Many directors have changed the department moniker from education to learning or interpretation. This change could be seen as a transformation from older methodologies to more sophisticated forms of engagement. (I have my reservations, though that is for another time).

Underlying these changes are some incredibly important cultural transformations. While in the dawn of museums experts spoke at visitors who received ideas, now visitors expect a responsive connection. Museums, like all service fields, have started to develop materials for the visitor, rather than just hoping the visitor likes the materials that are being developed. This move towards visitor-centered museums has been met with some uncertainty.

The most common complaint, often launched by directors or curators, is that museums shouldn’t “dumb it down” as they will lose their core audience. This criticism has some validity. Museums have a core audience of donors and scholars who expect a certain level of language. However, there are some holes in the reasoning that dumbing things down is bad. Firstly, erudite language express simplistic ideas and complexity can be shown simply. Language is often used in museums to imply sophistication and divide people by reading level. This type of exclusionary language occurs as interpretation writers and curators are not able to step outside their own written norms. Their expertise and reading experience makes them poor judges of what is broadly understood. A very smart, Ph.D physicist might not understand un”dumbed down” labels on Tibetan esoteric iconography.  Another problem is that “dumbing it down” implies that starting at that intro level makes you dumb. Intelligence has nothing to do with information retention, and conflating the two is a dumb move. Finally, the core audience is often seen differently by various aspects of the museum. Curators often see their peers or their donors as the end-user of labels; these are the people they engage with most commonly. Educators and interpreters often imagine a generalist as the most common audience for the labels; these are the people they engage most often. Curators, educators, and interpreters are all right. Museums often have multiple core audiences.

To return to the graphic, the solution to the challenges of ensuring visitor-centered interpretation can be to go back to the object. Rather than placing the museum and the object on one side of a see-saw, think of the object as being in the center (the fulcrum). The ideal balance for any object is an interpretation plan that takes into account the museum’s needs and the visitor’s desire. The object is what keeps everything in balance.

So many arguments over interpretation focus on the level of the language or the tone of the program–they are ancillary to the object. Instead, try to start with the object–what is the central ideas that people should know and want to know about the object? Then think about the ways you will communicate these issues. Remember you have many tools. Some will be ideal for the most erudite and some will be ideal for the least (And, remember this isn’t dumbing down but instead introducing people.)

 

Guiding Questions to Think about Bias in Museums (by functional area)

At AAM 2018, there was a wonderful panel led by Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko about Decolonization. While all the speakers were wonderful, I was particularly struck by Jaclyn Roessel’s remarks about indigenizing museums as an act of transforming the current power structure. Overall, the conversation underscored the importance of systematic and cataclysmic change in transforming the colonialism inherent in museums. This process is one that requires work and the ceding of power to people outside the museum world. Cinnamon et al stressed the importance of collective action and community-organized change.

Walking out of that conversation, I was struck at how much time and energy is required of community groups when they help museums transform. How can museums ensure that they are meeting this sacrifice in good faith? Museum teams need to prepare themselves for tough conversations.

The first step is to find ways to subvert the natural human inclination towards defensiveness. Criticism of any kind can feel like an attack. But, in a society where race is a taboo topic, criticism can become debilitating. Learning to tamp down defensiveness, therefore, can be an incredibly important means of laying a foundation for growth. (Incidentally, Beyond Defensiveness, our book, and our online course can be useful tools to help on the path to dealing with bias).

Once you are personally positioned to be self-critical about bias, you need to examine your work. While each field has a slightly different manifestation of bias, overall, investigating inherent challenges requires thinking about who is missing and why. Making ideas explicit requires seeing what you have been missing, potentially for your whole career. Think of it as an intellectual optical illusion; once seen cannot be forgotten.

An Example

Take this example. Recently, New York writer Jerry Saltz posted a tweet about women artists.

The sentiment was important, as was the fact that it was said by an influencer.  Yet, the tweet had an important omission. The tweet never called out the reason that women were not taken seriously as artists. While this could be seen as simply an issue of “elegant” verbal framing, this was also a way that language hides the actual instigators of inequity.  Exposing such omissions are important as bias cannot be dealt with if it remains invisible.

How do you see the unseen?

The pernicious effects of colonialism and bias thrive on silence and denial. People need to be willing to look at every process with a critical eye. Every element of work needs to be investigated. Choice points need to be considered. Here is a great moment where data and visualizations can help draw conclusions. Data can help make concrete that which is hidden. For example, what percentage of works in an audiotour are of male artists or artists of color? What percentage of artworks have long-form labels? What is the demographic make-up of the audience? What is the demographic make-up of the photographs in the marketing? (Above is a graphic to offer some questions by functional area.)

Doing this type of hard work internally is essential before joining forces with community partners. Those partners have put themselves out to join you on your journey. Don’t they deserve a travel partners who is strong enough to make it down this long road?

Recognizing Bias in Interpretation and Content

 

Being culturally situated is a state nothing can avoid, collection objects included.  Collection objects, even natural history specimens, are mediated by creators, curators, educators, amongst others. A dinosaur bone is excavated by a person, identified by a person, and reclassified by a person. The human existence, in other words, flavors the essence of every collection object.

The first step in recognizing bias is to accept that all aspects of museum work have inherent biases. There are many clear points of bias (above). Ignoring bias does not make these issues disappear; in fact, avoidance usually exacerbates and multiplies bias. Acquisitions are the often the result of inherent in-group bias when the academic interests nominate certain white, male artists as exemplary skewing the whole collection/ cannon. Databases seem cut and dry but are rife with potential biases.  For each category that has controlled vocabulary, a decision has been made. Databases that articulate male and female as the only choices for gender are excluding other genders. Interpretation is the front-facing function that needs to think particularly critically about bias.

 

 

Interpretation is like the end of the long line from the origin of the object to the visitor.  Interpretation is also the point where bias is particularly obvious. Content creation, ideally, starts with finding bridges between objects and visitors. There are many tools to form this bridge, from social media to catalog essays.  While each tool has a different reach and needs a different approach, in each instance the content creator chooses facets about the collection object to foreground. This choice-point is when many stories are edited out. When making this choice, however, thought is rarely given about who is being edited out and why.

How can bias be improved?

  1. Understand that all aspects of museum work have bias. Without accepting and understanding this, museum staff cannot address bias.
  2. In each area, reconsider conventional wisdom, long-held beliefs, and givens. Ask yourself “why” processes exists as they do.
  3. Seek help from others. Jaclyn Roessel gave a wonderful talk about her work about Indigenization of interpretation and process at #AAM2018, and this is a great example of how changing the balance of power can ameliorate biased systems.
  4. Invest time, energy, and trust. Museums are colonial institutions. Lip-service or surface bias treatment will not reform the foundations into equitable institutions. People need to go all in to make true change.

#AAM2018 Recap: Language, Collaboration, and Action

 

The Annual American Alliance Conference 2018 was hosted in toasty Phoenix. Many participants mentioned that this conference felt like a year to consider the basics. Rather than big bang projects, many presentations seemed to focus on maintenance, improvement, and thoughtfulness. As part of this introspection, many presentations put a fine focus on understanding the structures and processes of the museum world. Here is a roundup of some the biggest issues

Language: Communication between people has an inherent bias. Verbal communication often holds a bias towards those in power. For example, until very recently, many occupations were described in gendered terms (fireman, postman, councilman). Focusing on words might feel insignificant in the grand scheme of improving equity and inclusion. However, words are the basic building blocks of improving the socio-cultural state. Currently, language is built on broken blocks. Being thoughtful in the ways that you use language, avoiding biased language, for example, is like excavating and rebuilding our faulty communication tools.

Decolonialism/ Equity/ Inclusion:  Just as language might be the building blocks of inequity, colonialism is the architect of the inequity in society. The society we live in is a product of white Europeans expanding and conquering much of the planet, laying waste to the people and cultures resident there. This expansion/ decimation might have begun centuries ago, but the ramifications remain present today. Museum collections are particularly tangible artifacts of the colonial state. In order to truly embrace equity and inclusion, museums need to face and address the colonial nature of their work and collections, in a holistic and all-encompassing manner.

Collaboration/ Partnership: Museums are part of an ecosystem of organizations and institutions, large and small. Despite the breadth of possible collaborators, museums often act unilaterally in their planning and implementation of programs and exhibitions. Museums are ill-at-ease with ceding power, the central crux of good collaboration. Instead, museums often create collaborations in name only, which are basically perfunctory check-ins. With careful planning and dedicated time, museums can implement collaborations that will have positive lasting effects on their communities and their work. This type of collaboration, however, requires earnestness, truthfulness, transparency, and follow-through.

Risk: Risk-taking can be at the heart of a good collaboration. Museums are change-averse and yet always in the throes of change. This state means that staff needs to handle inadvertent change consistently, while not being able to take calculated risks (planned change). Fear of change is often centered around a few of power changes/ loss of power.  Conversely, ceding power is a learned skill not unlike risk-taking. Taking small risks, and reaping the benefits, can increase institutional aptitude for risk-taking.

Space: Improving anything is hard. It takes time, energy, money, and dedication. Ameliorating the state of museums can feel particularly draining, as we are a physically disparate field. (Rather than a physician with scores of peers in your region, museum workers often find their peers around the country/ world). As a result, people can feel isolated. Exhausted and isolated people cannot effectively make change. Museum workers must take care of themselves if they want to continue their impact on the field and their visitors. Self-care can take many forms, but in essence, means that you take some time to focus on yourself.

 

 

Emotions and Customer Experience

Customer/ Visitor Experience basically encompasses connection your visitor has with your organization from the signs on the street to the moments in the galleries. CX overarches both onsite and offsite; physical and digital. Experience is, therefore, a huge concept. As with all large concepts, considering constituent aspects.

Touchpoints:

The concrete elements that express the experience to customers/ visitors are a good place to start. These elements are where the ideas of the experience come to fruition, where theory becomes action. Here are some examples:

  • Discovery:
    • Word of Mouth
    • Social Media
    • Online
  • Research:
    • Social Media
    • Online
    • Front of Line Staff
  • Initiation:
    • Parking
    • Entrance
    • Front of Line Staff
    • Point of Sale
  • Consumption:
    • Galleries
    • Labels
    • Educators
    • Interactives
  • Review:
    • Word of Mouth
    • Social Media
    • Online

Reactions:

The touchpoints should spark reactions in visitors. These reactions aren’t just procedural. For example, a common museum touchpoint is a map that should help people get to places, at a bare minimum. But, the map should also communicate welcome and ease. People should feel comfortable.

Museums often focus on the procedural element to the touchpoints and therefore miss the mark with reactions. An effort needs to be placed on understanding that touchpoints evoke attitudinal (not just behavioral) reactions. Without careful consideration, those touchpoints will strike the wrong chord.

Actions:

Thinking big picture is a good improve the alignment of the touchpoints and the reactions. Start with the action you hope to evoke. So, for the map, for example, you are communicating welcome. You want people to feel ready and able. Certainly, you want them to get to each of the galleries. They won’t even want to get to your collection if they feel overwhelmed or turned off from the map.

Museum Customer Experience

Customer? 

Museums create exhibitions and installations for people. We most often describe those people as visitors. The word visitor has some strengths. A visitor is invited and wanted. But, a visit is transitory and not-participatory. There are so many other words that we could use. There might not be an ideal word, but for the sake of argument, let’s think about the word customer. This is a word that might feel at odds with museum culture. Customer implies a transaction and a transfer of a commodity; both of which are not usually the focus of museum culture (though do occur in museums). But, customer is a useful concept, as this is the word used in service transactions. This service arrangement is central to capitalist culture and has a refined customer culture. The norms of being a customer are inherent in almost every monetary exchange in the U.S. (and most capitalist countries). Customers are being who are treated well and who gets to determine what well means. They are, after all, always right.

Stores and restaurants spend real money on getting the customer culture right. They can’t afford to get it wrong. Design and service are honed to ensure clarity and conformance to brand. People walk into a place of business and know what they do. You don’t walk into a burger shop and wonder if they sell dresses.

Museums, on the other hand, eschew some aspects of customer culture. Whereas almost every public building makes finding the bathroom easy, many museums prefer to be coy. Museums are notorious for their poor wayfinding, no bright arrows for museums. Museums often use volunteers instead of staff to communicate their message.

Good Experiences

I’ve been to hundreds of museums. Thanks to years of dealing with patrons, I am highly attuned to hot-button challenges both from the side of the patrons and the front line staff. I can see the pain points and the failures. And, the challenge is that visitors might not be able to articulate the points of challenge, but they can certainly feel those problems.

Signage is a perennial problem, and a topic for a standalone post, but just think of the negative reaction a person has when the bathroom sign is too small to be seen. Their momentary (and visceral) negativity will be felt through the rest of their experience and will spill into their word of mouth reviews. In fact, everything that happens onsite effects the visitors feeling, because visitors are used to a customer culture that centers them.

With the many checks and balances in museums and the legislative pace of decision-making, often the most effective way to improve customer service is to train front of house staff to be more friendly. This decision is, of course, not free. Training takes time. As front of house staff is the lowest paid, they are often the most transient portions of the staff. But, the investment is huge. One good experience with a person can easily erase bad experiences with inanimate items (signs, maps, etc).

In Practice

One of the best experiences I have ever had with staff happened recently at MassMOCA. This museum is a bit of a pilgrimage site, nestled in the Berkshires. The enormous campus hosts contemporary art that can be esoteric and inaccessible. So, this is a museum that hosts people who really want to be there.

On a random Monday morning, we arrived two elementary aged girls in tow. Children make many museums nervous as if those erratic beings are just waiting to attack. My girls are used to museums and guards, so are okay when guards are a bit brusque. We were all totally surprised when the guard leaned down to their height to tell them which artworks could be touched. When they stood there a bit dumbstruck, he even cajoled them to interact. Every person who worked there communicated that they wanted us to be there. I cannot understate this. When the staff exudes welcome, the visitors/ customers feel positive about your institution.

That first experience was then translated throughout the institution. Staff throughout the organization smiled and helped. They welcomed, encouraged, and intuited, all the while remaining respectful. They were able to hang out at hand rather than hover creepily.

The impact of human experiences on visitors/ customers is huge. We happily bought lunch and knick-knacks, because we felt positive. We stayed longer because we felt comfortable. We told friends with families to make a stop there. (And, I wrote this blog post :>)

While that sign might give you bad vibes, a good experience with a person will be a concrete moment that visitors will remember. These are the kinds of experiences that are returned exponentially in word of mouth and repeat visitorship.

Improving Customer Experience

Front of House plays into the customer experience at the research, initiation, and consumption phases. Each of those points of interactions is chances to foster positivity.  But, without thought, organizations end up with erratic service. The heterogeneous siloing of roles (visitor experience and education) often means that customer service feels fragmented. Foremost, museums need to think about customer service systemically across their departments as well onsite/offsite.  Visitors/ customers don’t care that people work in different departments. They see all the people working at the museum as being on the same team. The plan needs to be produced with authentic input from people who actually work with visitors. (This plan cannot be top down if it is to be successful). Once this plan is in place, the service goals and benchmarks need to be communicated to the whole organization. Then people need to be trained and commended. Staff who are unhappy will not perform in positive ways. Finally, the customer experience plan needs to be iterative and evolving. Doing better for visitors/ customers requires trying to do better.