Content in museums where theory becomes practice. The best-laid plans of mice and curators are exposed to visitors. Then the visitors wander through the installation spaces like pinballs. Anyone who has wasted serious coin on pinball machines knows that winning the jackpot is equal parts skill and luck. Frankly, good interpretation is similarly a bit of both as well.
Hedging Your Bets
First probably, organizations will develop more content than visitors will consume, because visitors are a complicated and varied bunch. You can use some tools to help you develop the scope and goals for your content, but you will basically still be developing a bigger net than you need. Overall, you are giving more visitors will consume because this approach is the best way ensure there will be something for everyone.
But, producing more content than you need doesn’t mean that you should produce content indiscriminately. Instead, like a good poker player, you need to be strategic about what you need and what is out there. You need to think about what content works best on each platform, and what content is most necessary onsite. Basically, you need to find ways to parse out the idea based on the visitor’s needs.
The map about is an idealized, though fairly common, content journey map. Most people will receive content about the museum on social. (Some visitors might use the website or an app, but they are in the minority). Once they are onsite, visitors will be bombarded with content. There are labels, audiotours, tours, interactives, classes, and catalogs. Most visitors will engage with a small amount of this content. An interested visitor might then return home to engage with a bit more content, like flipping through the catalog or looking at the museum’s facebook posts.
Why do this?
Content mapping is a useful tool for everyone working on content. This tool helps the whole organization understand how interpretation overlaps many functional areas. Visitors don’t see the silos in museum organizations. In fact, when there are disconnections between social media text and labels, this can be confusing for visitors. The visitor experience is improved considerably when everyone sharing ideas with visitors works together.
Mapping also helps museums understand the role of each type of content. Interpretation is usually focused on onsite content, most often formal tools like labels and catalogs. But, other departments are instrumental in interpretation. Social media, for example, is an incredibly important content delivery device. Social media is often relegated to solely marketing. But, social media also serve important roles in engaging with installation interpretation. Social media can hit a casual humorous tone that can entice and charm visitors. Social media can help onboard people to the ideas about collections, helping visitors learn interesting kernels of information that scaffold deeper understanding. Social also plays an important role in changing people from casual to regular visitors. Social media is an engaging and regular tool to invite people to continue to engage with the collection after a visit. Also, casual visitors are most likely to share their feedback about their museum experiences over social.
Content mapping is a tool that helps museums understand how visitors actually use content, both onsite and offsite. This type of tool can help different functional areas think collectively about interpretation and their visitors. Tools such as this are essential to creating a cohesive customer experience.
When planning content, interpreters need to perform a weird type of math. After they formalize their process and create their goals, they then need to edit their desires to meet the visitor desires. Getting just the right amount of content is challenging to say the least. Part of the program is that the majority of visitors use very little information, but then there are the frequent visitors need a high level of information (partly as they come frequently). Additionally, relative or power users are super keen to access information, and they are often donors. Firstly, go back to your goals documents. Tailor content needs to make sure that visitor desires are addressed in the interpretation. This is a great moment to do research. In almost every instance, museums will still deliver more content than visitors need/want. Evaluation can help organizations get better (over time) at creating the ideal amount of content.
Note: These are my notes from my MuseumNext London 2018. I presented with Paul Bowers, so many of these come out of our shared conversations. I only included my parts of the talk in this write-up.
Museum workers are doing amazing work. Millions of objects are in care for posterity. Billions of visitors experience galleries annually. Billions of dollars are added to the global economy thanks to museums. Along with these quantitative outcomes, museum workers are making an enormous change in the field and in the lives of visitors.
The onus of all this work can be exhausting to employees not to say the least because museums workers often need to do all this good work all the while feeling like there are doing battle in their offices. Yet, this feeling of fighting the systems at work is something no worker needs. Finding ways to work well within work systems can help all workers free up mental space to do the real mission-driven work they want to do.
Has Museum Work Changed?
The museum-goer of the 19th century might be stunned if they were transmitted to the present-day museum. As leisure has changed, museums have also changed. Installation practice has certainly changed. Technology has transformed all aspects of the museum experience. But, in its essence, museum work is about connecting people to ideas and objects. So, while the products of museum labor have changed over time, the central tenets of museum work remains fairly consistent, partly because the running of the museums has not changed all that much. Museum remains bureaucratic, hierarchical systems that place a high value on expertise.
How do you hack the bureaucracy?
Paul and I think of this as a sort of emotional Tai Chi. We think of work relationships and actions as a sort of pushing hands, where you and your colleagues are working with (not against each other). Work is easier when energy is shared and harness, rather than wasted on working against each other. Now, this is easy to say but can feel like a tall order. Here are some tips to help you be able to work with people rather than against the bureaucratic orders.
Being Honest about Yourself
Think about words like bureaucracy, change, process, and strategy. What is your first idea when you hear those words? There is no wrong answer. Checking your own ideas is essential, though. You cannot act effectively if you don’t know where you stand now.
You might have a negative feeling about the idea of bureaucracy, but it is not inherently bad. In fact, those aspects of bureaucracy that are might feel bad(the slowness of approvals or the lack of power) can also be seen as the positive aspects. No system is bad or good. It is the way people work within the system that colors the way that people think of that system. Bureaucracy is a tool and it’s about communicating with different people.
The other caveat about knowing yourself is to remain thoughtful about how people react to you. Many people might feel like change agents and this is stressful. But the other roles are also stressful. Think of it this way. Some of us are big voices. Some of us live at 100 mph. Others live in quiet ways. Some people live at a stroll. All those people have to work together. The variety of humanity is at the crux of our infinite innovation but also the source of much of our emotional exhaustion. Knowing how people relate to you is decrease the emotional exhaustion you feel (and cause) in interacting with others.
2. Don’t hate on the system. Retrofit the System.
Let’s think of silos. Silos are just tall buildings that hold grain. They are a wonderful tool for holding and saving corn. They work so well that most American farms have one.
In the workplace, silos are have become a metaphor for calcified, stagnant, and/or pooled workforces. But, the silo is not inherently bad. (Think of how it keeps all that corn safe.) In work, silos can group like functional areas, giving a group of people an affinity support group. What is worse, however, is when allowing silos to become sealed. If those people in the department are excluded from cross-fertilization with other teams, then work becomes stagnated. How do you keep from letting worker rot in silos? Foster ways for people to work between silos; think of these as personal ladders. Cross-functional work teams, for example, build work bond between teams. For more on this topic, I have a long blog post.
3. Do You, because You Do You Best.
This Chinese image sets the fish and the rock against each other. You can think about what makes either of these adversaries more likely to win the battle. Rocks are strong, stable, and hard. Fish are agile, mobile, and part of a collective (not to mention sentient). But, overall both are worthy adversaries.
Fish are just fish. They likely don’t have existential about the nature of swimming or being in schools. They swim, eat, and swim some more. Humans have some many ways to complicate our existence. We often lose sight of our strengths and pretend to be someone else. But, think of if you really focused on working from your strengths, like being the swimmingest fish, how much better you would feel at work.
This rock and fish image is a good visual mnemonic for a meeting. Everyone has a strength. When you are in a meeting, you might feel like you are the fish, but remember you are just as worth a foe as the rocks in that room. Try to find ways to work from your strength, but also know that everyone has their own strength. Slow moving people can easily be thought of as considered thinkers.
4. Reach, Reach and Repeat
Flexibility is one of the most important skills of the contemporary worker, and yet it is one that we rarely train employees to learn. You might be curious that I discuss flexibility as a skill. Sometimes people discuss mental flexibility as an innate quality rather than a learned one. When you reframe your notions about flexibility, you are practicing flexibility.
Just like stretching, learning to be more flexible is about regular practice. Put yourself into positions where you feel uncomfortable. Do things in ways that you usually don’t. Try out communicating in a way that is different than you usually enjoy. Be thoughtful about the ways that you interact, and notice how those new methods feel. Basically, explore other ways to interact with your colleagues and other methods of doing your job. When you make mindful choices to explore other ways of things, you expand your status quo and you become more resilient.
5. More Time on You and Less on Them
Humans have survived for millennia thanks to their ability to read each other quickly. On unsafe roads in the Dark Ages, for example, one’s life depended on being able to read fellow travelers — fast. But, this skill can also be problematic. Very often in interpersonal relationships, we mistake people’s reactions due to misreading their body language.
For example, all the figures in the image above are standing in different gestures. If I asked you to pick out the person who is unhappy, you might point to the guard in the corner. Now, let’s say that this image was made ten minutes before his lunch hour. Is he unhappy or hungry? How will you know? The only way to know what someone is thinking is to talk to them. Without hearing what they are thinking, you are simply projecting.
Instead, take time to really understand your feelings and your reactions. We often have certain situations that make us bonkers. For example, I can’t handle when someone replies about the quality of the product with a statement about the amount of time required to do it. For me, time spent doesn’t equal quality of the product. For a long time, I projected my frustrations onto those people. But, then I realized that my issues about their workplace were actually my problem. I was not doing a good job of communicating that I valued those people’s work. I was projecting my beliefs of efficiency and labor onto them. I realized that they wanted their time-spent to be valued. So, instead of projecting my frustration, I should have been more focused on thinking about my ideas of work value and efficiency.
6. Be a Team Player and Understand Your Team
Most museum teams are a group of people from different departments working together towards a goal. Usually, we only have one person per functional area. So, your peers work together but each person does different work. As such, you might not actually know what that other person does. You need to have to trust everyone to work together and do their role. But, you also need to support all of the members of the team, not solely the lead or the loudest person. If that project is mounted, every person who worked on it was the reason it happened. Every person deserved credit. And, most importantly everyone was essential to that project’s success. Work is a team sport. When we allow credit and success to seem like an individual activity, we devalue everyone’s labor and diminish our future work.
This graphic illustrates the relationship between the museum and visitors content desires. Notice there is an overlap as well as places where the two groups diverge.
Getting the right amount of content is challenging. Firstly, content costs money and time. There is the writer, the researcher, and the editor–those people are all over-worked and underpaid. Content levels are an essential aspect of the visitor experience. When there is too little content, visitors will feel like they aren’t getting their money’s worth. Too much content can overwhelm and turn-off visitors.
In addition, different audience segments have different needs. General visitors have much lower content needs than Power visitors. Curators will likely want to share more content than even the most intense power visitor. Finally, there will be content needs that visitors will want that museums will not be able to accommodate easily; there will always be visitor questions, for example, for which the museum won’t have the answer.
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:
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.
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.)
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.
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 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.
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.
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.)
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.
Take this example. Recently, New York writer Jerry Saltz posted a tweet about women artists.
Sadly until very very very recently, women have barely been taken seriously at all as visual artists.
I think that ONLY women should show for the next FIVE YEARS.
See what happens. Men lay fallow (exhibition-wise).
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.
While I agree with your sentiment, I want to make explicit an implicit element of your note: Until recently _Men_, who control much of the means and ways of production and consumption of art, did not take female artists serious.
— Seema Rao __ Brilliant Idea Studio (@artlust) May 19, 2018
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?