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

24 May

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.)

 

13 Mar

Thinking about Value: Universal Rights of Humanity & Free Arts/ Culture

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed in 1948 explicitly calls out the importance of arts and culture. Article 27 states “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” This estimable document includes a number of essential rights, like the right to life and work. Amongst those foundational needs, everyone has the right to knowledge and culture.

Costs

The importance of intellectual and cultural pursuits might be seen as a right by the United Nations but are often unfunded mandates in many countries. In the US,  arts and culture funding generally combines private and public funding like a complicated crazy-quilt. A patron at a library, theater, and/ or museum would be hard-pressed to perceive the sources of money that keep the lights on and the culture coming.  Arts and culture seem to just be there.

The opacity of funding can be a sincere challenge in building ownership in patrons as well as maintain sustainability. Patrons need to understand costs if they are being asked to help pitch in. National Public Radio (NPR) offers a useful model of articulating the actual cost of services. During funding drives, most stations delineate the costs and then remind listeners of their responsibility to pay for what could be free. Breaking down costs concretizes services that otherwise seem ephemeral.

Museums and arts organizations, like NPR, are often available on the user’s timeline. Rather than a theater performance, you can go to the museum during open hours.  You might choose to spend the full day in the galleries or walk out in ten minutes. At the symphony, you would be ejected by polite red-coated volunteers if you tried to stay the day and judged, equally politely, if you walked out in ten minutes.  While this self-determined timeline can be positive for visitors, it can also have ramifications for the perception of value. One museum professional shared that they felt that, “People see us as the friend who is always there for you when you don’t have plans, and this is also the friend that you don’t really pay attention to.”

Visitors often do not understand the true costs of running arts or cultural organizations. Museums and arts organizations support their funding mostly through large donors, who basically subsidize the low-cost or free entrance. So, the visitors are merrily ignorant of the hard work the development staff engages in daily. They see the benefits of this labor as a given.  Alternately, many performing arts organizations have a different model. Patrons pay fees for tickets. These fees do not completely cover the operating costs. But, patrons understand that there is a cost associated that that cultural experience.  The distributed funding model in performing arts exposes the funding needs to a broader sector of their community.

Patrons will not innately understand costs. The onus is on the organizations to make this clear to their broad audience. Many of the costs of this work are different than the costs in other fields. Most office buildings have framed posters on the wall. Not all visitors will understand why the cost of framing and hanging an artwork on a museum wall is exponentially higher. An arts-professional shared the importance of expressing funding needs…”CHRISTINA”

 

Value

Value has a complicated relationship with cost. For example, if the value is seen to be less than the cost, the patron will likely be deterred or disgruntled. If the value is perceived to be more than the cost, the person will be thrilled to make the payment.  But value is not just about getting a steal.  Value can grow over time. Repeated contact can be necessary to really appreciate some costs. Gym membership, for example, is a cost that you might need a few months to truly appreciate.

Arts and culture also have a perception problem. These pursuits are seen as being appreciated by a rarified audience. Certain skills are seen as necessary to “get it.” They have to be “your thing.”  And, if they aren’t your thing, you won’t find enjoyment. A recent British study articulated this issue:

Onboarding is, therefore, a major problem for the field. Entry programs, often through schools, can help people gain an appreciation of arts and culture. However, if these programs are not valued in their family, students often do not grow to value arts and culture in the long term. Families often preference other leisure pursuits, even if those have costs, unlike the free arts and culture. All is not lost, of course. Arts and culture appreciation can grow in young adulthood, often through friends. However, young adulthood is a time of high student loans and low disposable income. So, young adults might not experience arts and culture enough to build a sustained habit.

Free programs, therefore, can be a way to build broad audiences. As one cultural professional said “[without free programs], I think our audience would be even more middle-aged and middle-class than it is, and I don’t know that it would have the chance to diversify, both in those terms and in others.” Free programs are the easiest way to break down a tangible access barrier. Free allows anyone and everyone to enjoy the benefits of arts and culture.

Arts and culture are also often best enjoyed collectively. A live reading of a poetry is different than listening to an audiobook at home. Live theater allows patrons to connect not only to the story but also to the energy of being in a room full of like-minded individuals. When a social group goes to an exhibition, they can learn and explore together. Arts and culture are also cost-effective when experienced collectively. The cost of mounting an opera is exorbitant, and so sharing those costs are the only way that such experiences can exist. Real Rembrandts, and frankly many fake Rembrandts, are too costly for most people to own. Most people’s chance to experience high-quality art is in art museums.  As, the power of experiencing arts and culture, though, is not universally obvious, free opportunities allow people to tap into these experiences of collective learning with authentic arts and culture.

Free also has a number of problems, however. As mentioned above, free means costs must be raised in other ways. Also, as mentioned above, free means people do not understand the true costs, and so they cannot determine the true value. Therefore, for some organizations free becomes a different type of barrier. As a professional at a free museum shared, “People just assume that they can come when they want, and so they never come and go to the things that they pay for. No one wants to lose money.”

Value and cost, therefore, have a convoluted relationship. These organizations are seen as exclusive.  Charged fees support the perception of exclusion. The real costs of running these types of organizations are often invisible to users. However, most people do not place enough value on these resources to pay even a portion of the cost. After all, even when available free, these arts and culture amenities are often eschewed for costlier options. When free programs are valued, patrons grow a deep appreciation and donate funds.

Conclusion

The rights to art and culture are one that is not universally appreciated. There is no single way to run arts and culture nonprofits to help patrons understand their value. Broad social appreciation of these fields is required to sustain audiences. Costs can be an access barrier, certainly, however, fees can also signal value to patrons. Availability can be a way to grow engagement or a means of building engagement.

However, the salient issue here is about perceived value. In order to maintain the arts and cultural sector, writ large, the social value has to be clear to potential patrons.  These programs have to appeal to patrons (rather than organizations). In other words, the arts and cultural sector cannot expect to draw new patrons (or even existing patrons) by maintaining the status quo. They need to find better ways to express their value to their local community while also working nationally as advocates.

 

01 Mar

Connecting Experience and Research

Research is the fuel in the engine of the museum’s output. Like a car, which is basically inert without a driver, the museum only fulfills its full mission when drawing visitors. Visitors are now a scarce commodity. Drawing more visitors requires considering our offerings and the way those offerings come to fruition. This does mean going all the way to the sources, including research. We need to be thoughtful about how we do research, who does research, and which research is prioritized. All those choices will eventually determine which visitors we draw. When we place research outside the realm of bias and inclusion conversations, we are putting bad fuel in our engines.

 

Centering visitors takes work. Museums often start with objects then come up with ideas for installations and exhibition, then turn to thinking about visitors while producing the outputs of that research, like in the diagram below. The challenge is that when you do your research that not centered on your visitor. Now, this is in some ways a challenging proposition. Research is an unwieldy process.  Anyone who has done research understands the sort of free-flow, errant paths that you must travel and the secret travails you must brook. Centering your visitor in your research means simply as you look at your work remember you are doing this for someone–not just yourself or your museum. Use that as a guiding idea throughout your work (as seen above). Just as a writer knows that someday someone will read these words (please read these words :>), a museum researcher should hope that their work will be consumed by someone. In other words, keep that goal in mind throughout your research.

27 Feb

Interpretation : Focus on Tactile and Kinesthetics

In museum galleries, we signal ideas through a variety of ways. Collections are visible in the galleries. Interpretation adds more signals, like ancillary images, audiotours, and of course text. But, we also omit many stimuli. We often completely exclude two major forms of meaning-making, kinesthetic and tactile. What happens when we do this? And, what are ways that we can foster these senses?

 

 

Meaning-Making

Every moment of the day, awake or not, we make take in sensory information and make sense of the world. Some stimula are fairly direct. We smell a musty odor and match that to a memory of skunk smells. Other times, we receive information that has been translated by an individual (like you are reading about skunk smell now).

Most objects in museums are translations of phenomena. Fossils were once a living, breathing creature. Artworks might relate a concept, idea, or experience.  Look at the example above. An artist has created an image of a cat. Now, in understanding that object, you can use your senses. In museums, you will most likely not be able to touch it. You could listen to an audiotour, but you couldn’t be able to hear the sounds of striking it (ping) or dropping it (crash). Most likely you will need to use vision as your primary sense, either through looking at the object or reading the text (a translation of the object into text that the reader must interpret.)

 

 

Touch

In other words, in the vast majority of museum settings, visitors must rely on the mediation of the museum interpretation. They need to use visual sense as the primary source whereas in the rest of the world they use many more sources of information.

Humans have a distinct haptic system, where they use touch to reflexively seek and acquire information, even more quickly than with the sense of sight.  Many types of information are most easily ascertained through touch like hardness, temperature, pliability, weight. These topics can be learned through verbal communication, yet they are more easily ascertained if you just reach out your hand. People often act on this need to understand through touch before their rational senses take hold.

Touch can evoke memories but also quickly immerse people in new experiences.Touch is a type of learning that is often fostered in early childhood. Engaging in learning through touch is pleasurable.

 

 

Kinesthetics

Touch is not the only sense that people lose in the museum. Spatial and kinesthetic sensibilities are often challenging. Works are seen out of context. While the fossils of some dinosaurs are seen in its full forms, many bones might be framed in a case. Because of that, you can’t walk around the whole creature. You can’t understand your relative scale to this animal, for example.

Kinesthetic experiences allow learners to connect actions to ideas to develop deeper understandings of concepts and developing critical thinking efficiently. This connection of body and mind is called embodied learning, in which abstract ideas are made more salient when connected to concrete physical action. While kinesthetic learning is so important for meaning-making, this form of engagement is underrepresented throughout the educational ecosystem.

Kinesthetic learning has some important ancillary benefits. Experiences that foster learning through actions usually have a flexibility that encourages creativity, experimentation and problem-solving.  The sheer act of moving put learners in a position to see spaces and objects from a new perspective. In museums, ideally, kinesthetic learning should feel authentic and meaningful. And, kinesthetic learning also encourages collaborative action.

 

Authenticity

Streamlining to visual senses have major problems for visitors. Spatial and tactile learning can certainly help those with hearing and sight impairments, but these types of experiences empower everyone making collections more memorable for all. Together these senses can evoke emotions and encourage fascination.

The challenge for museums is that touch and kinesthetic action are natural ways that humans make meaning. The sense of touch is the easiest way to ascertain authenticity, for example. People are well aware when an experience feels inauthentic.  Museums need to be thoughtful, therefore, in the experiences they produce, for example, using high-quality replicas. When chosen appropriately, handling replicas or other materials can stimulate engagement.

Touch does not mean to wildly grab collections. Museums need to help visitors learn appropriate handling behaviors. Ideally, touch can be added into museum spaces without unleashing an avalanche of destruction. Reality-based interactions on tablets can offer some of the benefits as touching objects. While more research needs to be done, virtual touch does seem to be a real option.

20 Feb

What Museums Can Learn from the Black Panther

The stars of Black Panther including Zuri in purple carrying an impressive blade (Marvel’s Black Panther, 2018)

Taken from the Marvel Comic Books, the Black Panther is a movie about a fictional African nation that cloaks its advanced civilization as a form of self-preservation. The king of the nation has superhuman strength thanks to serious sumptuary success. The Black Panther’s trail to bring a bad guy to justice starts some even worse experiences for him and his nation.

1. Great story with POC doesn’t have to be about color
While the Black Panther mentions slavery, colonialism, appropriation, and the art market, they are in support of a great story. Certainly, the many challenges in the history of the African diaspora are worthy of exploring in film, as well as literature and exhibitions. But, people of color are not just the sum of the worst of their history. Black Panther told a great hero story, using all the elements of the character’s history, good and bad. But, this is a really an adventure romp.

In other words, don’t essentialize POC’s experiences in exhibitions or programming. Appeal to the whole people if you want their whole participation.

2. Market for Success
Disney put real money into the marketing, and their investment was returned by being the fifth biggest box office opening domestically.

Museums often split up their marketing with the smallest part going to education programs and diversity programs. And, then people don’t come. If these people are the hardest to get, you probably need to try the hardest to get them into your doors.

3. Synergy Sells
The Black Panther will be in the upcoming Infinity War, apparently. Most Black Panther audiences know this because the ad ran before the movie this weekend. Every person who liked this movie saw that. Some portion might even attend that movie as a result. That said, not every person in the theaters this weekend is a Marvel fan. Many came out to support a Black-led and performed film. But, the synergy is a classic Hollywood trick. Snag extra audiences by pushing products in existing audiences.

Museums often sell hard to a sector of an audience for specific exhibitions, like African-American audiences for an exhibition of Kerry James Marshall or young boys for an exhibition of Dinosaurs. That is good marketing sense. But, most museums can do better about cross-promotion. Look for ways that you might find connections to other parts of your collection. Offer them some connected ways to maintain a relationship with your organization’s collection. The Marshall attendees might love figurative painting. The Dinosaur boys might like whales. To find the best synergies think broadly, don’t essentialize people, and consider doing some evaluations of audiences about other interests.

4. Don’t Shy Away from the Hard Stuff
There is one scene in a museum where a woman (curator, marketing manager?) is standing in a gallery (with coffee!) nearly apoplectic when being accused of cultural piracy/ theft of artifacts. There are many tougher issues about race that are brought up in this movie, though woven into the narrative. I remind you that this is a Disney blockbuster movie being advertised during the Olympics.

Controversial issue and blockbusters don’t need to be in opposition. In fact, if you avoid controversial issues, you might find that you have alienated audiences making for a far-from-successful blockbuster.

5. Celebrate rather than Blind Yourself to Color
Disney worked to create a film within the Marvel universe that worked for the audience, and then made sure people knew what they were getting. It’s right in the name, “Black Panther”. This was not the African-American panther (not to mention he is meant to be from Africa). This story was pretty honest about race, but also matter of fact. From the advertising alone, no one thought that they were going to be seeing one or two black faces. But, at the same time, it was not just about race. You didn’t forget their color but you let the Black Panther, his enemies, his friends, and everyone else in Wakanda be their whole selves.

Museums in general still make the mistake of essentializing people of color, particularly black/ African-American people. Coded language flourishes in museums and museum culture. The word “diversity” in most museums means, not variation as it should, but instead moves to include black people or people of color in the museum ecosystem. This is a terribly bad way to grow audiences. You are basically inviting people in to change your demographic but not changing for them. What happens, then, is that you don’t have true change in museum demographics.

Black Panther showed that people of color will respond to quality entertainment that is more than about race as long as it doesn’t shy away from Race. Also, this was not a sneaky move to create a movie that had an almost all-black cast. This was all-out, right-on Black made and performed.

Museums can learn bringing people in, different people than you have now, requires real effort, real money, and a truthful product. After all, if you aren’t planning to go big, people will just stay home. Don’t believe me, ask the people who didn’t stay home this weekend.

And if you were here for the art, here are 12 artworks from cultures that inspired the Black Panther designers.

08 Feb

The Future of the Art Museum: The Alternative Possibilities

 

I was struck by this response to a previous post of mine. I wasn’t the only one. It had 40 likes and 18 retweets.

In many ways, art museums greatest strengths can be their failures. Art museums do quiet, meditative, restrained, and grown-up really well. These are good things for the people who already go to art museums. After all, those people like those things enough to go.

Why is attendance going down? 

Yet, museum attendance is going down.  Why? I’ll give you my take.  First, that core demographic (middle-aged women) is aging. And, those people aging into middle-age are finding other things to do. In other words, visitors are becoming a finite commodity. Unlike in previous generations, when there were fewer things to do, museums now have still competition to convert new patrons.

Notice how I didn’t say that art museums do art well. Art museums often prioritize themselves over their visitors. I love museums and even I sometimes feel like visiting the morgue might be a more jolly afternoon than some exhibitions. Sometimes I read the curatorial listings in the paper and wonder if the museums are playing a colossal game of stump the chump. And, then as if they have Jekyll and Hyde syndrome, those same institutions evoke the blockbuster card with the most stereotypical, saccharine, middle-age-lady-baiting exhibition that they can. What about the happy medium, friends? Sometimes you do that well, but only sometimes. Make this the given, instead of the occasional, and museums would automatically do better with attendance.

Art museums have also suffered for their stability. They have vast, expensive collections. They have authenticity in the hole. And, so, they have felt like they can focus on that and slack on the visitor experience. The truth is that the idea of authenticity has expanded. Who has read a book on Kindle and felt as if they didn’t read the REAL book? There is certainly the core audience who is amazed by a real Tanguy. But, there a bigger group of people who don’t care what That Guy’s real painting is. Museums can’t eschew focusing on experience. They don’t get a free pass for being repositories of the world’s history.

Museums aren’t changing fast enough. The world has changed pretty quickly in most people’s lifetimes. Other than those born after 2007, most humans remember a time before cell phones. Fast change is our normal. So, when museums tout changes that feel glacial, they show how incredibly out of step they are.

How can they stem the tide? 

Truthfully, monumental changes are needed. First, and foremost, culturally art museums have to accept that the status quo will not work. If art museums continue as they are, the audience decline will be precipitous.

Collections: 

Now, I will say that some museums are making changes and putting in certain efforts. A recent Ford Foundation grant, for example, funded some wonderful projects. Many of those efforts are focused on curatorial practices. That is a good start, on some level, as collection work is a core competency of museums. Curators have concentrated power in museums. In some ways, projects targeted at collection acquisition are focused on improving the means of production. Future collections will be less uniform, ideally, with these efforts.

Staff: 

But, those efforts might fall flat if they are not paired with many other changes. If you use the production model, even if the means of production improves, the company can still go under. Currently, museums run on a model of inequity, with portions of their staff working for considerably less than others. While in the short-term this model is fine, in the long-term this is inefficient for the field. Right now, the glut of young potential employees is high. Eventually, it will slow and then the cheap labor model will stop working.

Even if you aren’t worried about long-term sustainability, the museum staffing model is bad for visitors. Underpaid staff is not going to do their best no matter how much they love the art.

 

Visitors: 

Collection work will help museums maintain current audiences. Improving workplace equity will help them have a stable workforce, and therefore save money on retraining. This will allow them to increase time and money spent on visitor experience. Improving how people feel at the museum is the only way to increase audiences. To go back to the tweet I started with, people need to feel like the museum is enjoyable. They need to feel like you want them there as they are, not as you want them to be. In order to do this, the practice needs to align with the visitor’s needs (rather than the museums.) Without a concerted effort on making museums about visitors, we will eventually be without visitors.

11 Jan

Inequity in The Arts & Culture Economy Equation

 

The arts and culture present some serious funding challenges for society and represent some serious inequities.

Production:

  • The top of the pyramids, like the directors of museums or the owners of galleries, make much more money than those starting out.
  • Many people cannot afford to work in the arts because of the low salaries.
  • Therefore, arts and culture often draw from upper middle class and upper-class sectors for staffing.

Consumption:

  • Donors give more money than the average customer.
  • However, donors and other upper middle class/ upper-class disproportionately consume the arts.
  • Arts and Culture are often too expensive for the middle class and lower middle class.
  • Institutions serve more people than they employ, meaning that while there isn’t large “profit, there is increased engagement.

So what? Well, it means that when arts and culture have inequity in their means of production, the public will question our costs. Art, for example, is a commodity. People know that works can cost millions of dollar. When museums suggest they need money to support their operations, this doesn’t compute.

Arts and culture are extremely costly to produce. Think of all of the people who need to paint sets for Broadway show, and this is not work that can be automated. And, while people might enjoy that show, they can’t see how the cost of painting that set goes into the ticket fee. They just see that they will be spending $200 of their hard earned money for a 2-hour show, for example. You don’t realize that your ticket is not even close to covering that set painter; the corporate donations are part of this. Obscuring the cost of production means that consumers don’t understand the importance of their contributions.

The inequity on the production side also has major problems. Arts and culture of all kinds have expanded drastically. The required contribution from consumers has increased to cover these costs.  But, finally, the perceived value of these experiences has not necessarily increased. There is more and more competition for the same consumers, just as they are less likely to go to events. In other words, organizations now cost more while often getting fewer consumers.  Arts and Culture need to make more to cover their higher costs but people are not necessarily more likely to spend it. Finally, the opt-in fee to start using arts and culture prices out people, meaning that a whole generation of potential future clients might miss out.

The inequities in our funding of arts and culture can have massive ramifications on the number of future consumers potentially rotting the future of the sector.

This post follows up a post about the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new mandatory ticket fees: Nickles, Dimes, and Tough Times : The Relationship between Visitors, Revenue, and Value

05 Sep

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

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

On Transcendence:

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

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

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

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

Flow VS Transcendence

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

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

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

What Flow and Transcendent Design Mean for Museums

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

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

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

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

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