Museums are not Neutral — Nothing is #MuseumsarenotNeutral


As a “first year” in college, I sat in a bright room that belied the imposing gothic facades that populated campus.  My professor asked us to raise our hands if we were rational beings. We all raised our hands. He asked us to keep our hands up if we were not biased. He then asked us to keep our hands up if we are able to turn a lens on culture critically, without bias. We all maintained our smiles with our hands thrust in the air.  He then said that every hand should be down. No human, he explained, could be outside society.

We all have these moments that break into our excepted vision of the universe. These are revelations which change everything.  I never again could look at anything within society as being anything but socially/ culturally constructed. Nothing is free of culture.  Think of this metaphor. Everything in the world is culture; and we cannot step outside it into space, as there is no air there.

So, when I saw this debate on Twitter about my colleague/ friends at Portland Art Museum’s exhibition involving sharing ideas with visitors, I was almost incredulous. The socially constructed nature of everything, including museums, is something that has suffused all my work. It occurred to me that this might be an issue of nomenclature. Political is a  word that has become tainted with additional meaning. In its original sense, it means to wade into the ideas that are part of society. Partisan, on the other hand, is to take sides. People might not understand that nothing is neutral; everything is within society.

Of course, the idea that museums are not neutral is not solely an academic one. Money is involved, and as such, complications follow. Museums are 501(c)3s or non-profits. As such, there are many rules as to how they should behave. But, those laws do not prevent museums from sharing ideas or empowering visitors to make choices. In fact, those laws support museums in doing their part to help visitors be informed.  Those laws help create a structure denoting exactly how far museums can go. Truthfully, when people like Portland do anything, they are way ahead of others, and so it looks as if they have crossed a line. But, what they have done is stand up to do what’s right within the law. If this seems shocking, you might instead wonder why more museums aren’t joining the charge.

Visual Literacy and Importance of Imagery in Interpretation (Graphics/ Data/ Blog)

Early man likely shared stories orally. These stories would eventually become text. But, images probably came before written text. While the exact purpose of these visuals remains unclear, certainly one can assume that the original audience was able to garner meaning from looking at the images.

This is not surprising if you think of life. From the moment most people open their ideas to the moment they start a dream, our brains are inundated with visual imagery. As babies, we can read images long before text.  Everyone, on some level, has an incipient level of visual literacy, or the ability to connect images to socially-coded meaning.

The caveman in us was very adept at understanding visual stimulate—their lives depended on it. In fact, our brains are faster at making sense of visual stimuli. We can make sense of visual information in an estimated 1/10 a second.  Another study indicates that we can make sense of visuals 60,000 times faster than making sense of a text.

What changes have occurred in the last decade, or so?

The success of visual content is predicted on this natural predisposition. Our society went from a fairly slow rate of visual production until the invention of the printing press, at which time we could speed things up considerably. The explosion of affordable, mass-produced imagery must have been astonishing. Cameras, television, and the internet saw concomitant jumps in the number of images produced and shared. But, the last few years have seen an unprecedented increase. While an estimated 3.8 trillion photos were taken in all of from 1939 until mid-2011, 1 trillion photos were taken in 2015 alone.

There are a number of drivers of this growth. Data is cheaper. Smartphones and tablets have a very high diffusion in society. Visuals are ever cheaper to print, like in print on demand book.

And, the appetite seems to be growing. Video, for example, is expanding (though its success is arguable). From the content producer end, video makes sense. Forrester Research suggests that one minute of video is worth 1.8 million words. Most social media apps see a major uptick in engagement when images are attached. Images drive nearly 60% of all digital impressions.

Why use visuals? Why think harder about visual interpretation?

Basically, we do better at visual interpretation, because this is something our visitors value. Period. But, if you want to drill down, visuals are good at:

  • Showing context of objects
  • Showing interrelationship between subsidiary parts
  • Giving authenticity to ideas
  • Showing relative scale of items
  • Explicating complex systems
  • Showing step by step information
  • Drawing attention

What needs to change in museums?

First, we need to understand that increasing visuals in our interpretation is in no way devaluing our collections. We can maintain the authenticity of the originals, and the joy of looking at the real dinosaur bone, say, while still increasing the rigor and quality of visual interpretation.

In just the last couple years, social media has indicated the importance of visuals to drive growth, like the expanding market of Instagram or the dominance of FacebookGoogle is setting some real money into visual search. Already 1.2 Billion images are uploaded to Google Photo every day.  Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are low-text immersive technologies predicated on images. The future uses of AR and VR remain enticing. All in all, advances of technology support image-first  or highly image-based content.

The continued growth in image-based technology is driven by people’s consumption. While the general populace consumes more image-delivered content, our curators, and other staff, i.e. those who determine the tone of communication, are trained largely using text and testing their knowledge with text. Therefore, we naturally use text to describe images, but we aren’t predisposed to use visuals to define images/ visual collections. We are also likely much higher consumers of text than the average visitor.

Additionally, our visual communication is often disconnected to that which our visitors consume other places.  Our visitors have very sophisticated visual literacy. They decode visual in marketing, often visuals that stand alone or have little subsidiary text.  They see 5,000 branded images every day. They get 11 million bits of information every second.

In other words, our visitors are basically immersed in visual decode constantly. Even with these visually-literate consumers, we use visuals sparingly as a field, or rather, we use text as the primary. Some fields are better at using visuals, like science and natural history museums. This might be in part due to their training, where the illustration is a long-standing element of learning and teaching.

I remember when I was working on the content for Gallery One, my most striking lesson was the way that imagery was the best way to show context. Images are how we see context in our own life, so of course they are the most nature way to show context from history lives.  I could talk about fibula until I was blue in the face or I could just show you this image:

Overall, we still remain text first. And, this is a major problem.  We need to make sure to think of visuals and text as an interpretation package. Our visitors are using visual and text together to make sense of our collections; our interpretation doesn’t alway help support this. Therefore, we need to be strategic in the ways that we use this.  We need to make sure to think of visuals and text together, without either being subsidiary to the other.

Remember, in the world outside museums, images are definitely on equal footing with images, if not central in most of the content that our visitors consume. Sharing content that resonates with the norms of society is ultimately the way for museums to remain relevant.


I placed the visual summary here. Reflect on your experience accessing this information visually as compared to the textual approach above:


This is the fourth in a series of posts about considering Interpretation and Content to Meet Today’s Visitor’s Needs.

Previous Posts:

Are Museums Writing for Today’s Audience? Looking at the Changes in Literacy & Knowledge-Creation in Society

Labels in the world of Information Overload

Interpretation, Content, and the Use of Text in Museums


Engaging Interpretation (Blog/ Graphic)

Truly inclusive museums center visitors in their practice. In order to do this, they make sure that the idea that they offer through interpretation balance the desires and needs of museums and visitors. Ideally, they include elements of the collection object and its history in ways that are relevant to the visitor.

The graphic, however, is the most generalized state for interpretation. In practice, parts of this diagram will increase in relative scale. For example, for most objects, the donor portion is much smaller than the relevancy.  How do you measure this? Well, go back to your goal–you want to center visitors. Look at the ideas from the visitor’s lens. (A future post will share more about thinking of interpretation holistically.)


So how do you do this? Start by thinking about the object. That object is so much all in one package no matter what the collection–art or science. As an interpreter, you are the person who decides what stories are foregrounded. But, in order to do that, you need to be thoughtful about the choices you make. Think of the object as a locus of fractal layers of ideas. There are so many elements that come together.

Step through all those hidden layers from the object’s beginning to now.  You could start with tangible, like its surface texture,  but also think about the layers that are intangible. Also, you can consider the object and the culture around the object.  And, then be thoughtful about how you explicate and excavate those layers for your visitors. Many of those layers, like the use, have changed over time, so they are not obvious to visitors. Some of these elements might be also invisible now, like the context. You can bring the invisible past into people’s present in relevant ways.


My classic example is the fibula.  As you think about developing the interpretation of this object, break out every layer of an object, and be thoughtful about what elements that you choose to use in your interpretation.  Certainly, this was not just a functional object, it was also a marker of wealth and gender.   Compare these two statements: “The fibula is used to hold up a garment.” or “Wealthy men in early Britain used finely wrought fibula to fasten their garments.  The latter statement adds important layers of knowledge connecting the object’s present to facets of its past. 

But, think of the power you have. You can help people journey into ideas and concepts that are apparently invisible.  You have the chance to transform something inert into a transformational tool. Take up that charge.


This is the fifth in a series of posts about considering Interpretation and Content to Meet Today’s Visitor’s Needs.

Previous Posts:

Inclusive Interpretation Tips 

Are Museums Writing for Today’s Audience? Looking at the Changes in Literacy & Knowledge-Creation in Society

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Interpretation, Content, and the Use of Text in Museums

Interpretation, Content, and the Use of Text in Museums

Interpretation is a word used in the museum situation to denote the function of creating information about collections. Most often this sector deals with text read on walls, like labels and panels. The term for me isn’t quite right. It sounds like you are translating between audiences, implying the need for an intercessor. I do like that the word sounds like a process, in opposition to the word used for this function in the non-museum world, content. The latter word has some benefits. I know content is a made up word, but it is also the made-up word that most of the world knows. Search for content development in Google, and you will see how much currency “content” has in society.

In each of these, you are offering information about your collection. In every one people are connect to your organization. Every piece of information on this chart is a type of information. And the patron is looking for learning on some level, but the learning needs to be tailored to the media.

All these issues of nomenclature aside,  interpretation, for lack of a better term, is much more than labels. Ideally, you should come up with a strategy for communicating about your collection broadly. When you do that, think about the many ways you are sharing ideas. This graphic just breaks out the common textual forms of interpretation. Ideally, you would look at all the forms of interpretation within your ecosystem. (Thinking about this ecosystem will be the topic of an upcoming post. So check back.)



This is the second in a series of posts about considering Interpretation and Content to Meet Today’s Visitor’s Needs.

Previous Posts:

Are Museums Writing for Today’s Audience? Looking at the Changes in Literacy & Knowledge-Creation in Society

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The Inclusive Museum : The Ideal State of Being for a Museum


The Japanese concept of Ikigai has been rolling around the Internet. The graphic describes when you are in the ideal state of being by balancing various states of work, life, meaning, and hope. The concept is either aspirational or depressing depending on your circumstances. The image did get me thinking. The museum has two important types of work: caring & sharing. How can you develop a balance that is ideal for visitor?

How can the idea of the ideal state of being be translated to the work of a museum? 

From Exterior to Interior:

This graphic helps show how the ideal museum, one that centers visitors, can balance its many roles and responsibilities. At the farthest edge, there are the core roles of the museums. Its worth noting that Impart was a term that I agonized over. Impart can sound negative, but I couldn’t quite think of a word that included: Teach, Share, Communicate, and Instruct.  Learn might be surprising as well, as you might see it as a visitor function. But, truthfully, good museums are constantly learning from visitor evaluation, tech workflow improvements, and object research.

The next tier, moving inward, are the modes that roles are implemented.

The next tier is why the museum uses those modes. Notice this tier moves from nouns to verbs. The museum ideally does something to elicit a reaction in the visitor.

Finally, the best museum experience is multi-faceted, drawn from the core competencies of the museum, but mounted in ways that are focused on the visitor.

Are Museums Writing for Today’s Audience? Looking at the Changes in Literacy & Knowledge-Creation in Society

Evolution of Knowledge Acquisition

When our visitors walk into their museums, they will have already consumed a great deal of information and fast at a rate of, on average, 23 words per second.  Over the course of a day, people read an average 105,000 words.  They walk into your museum, only to use text to find the bathroom, learn about your collection, and find their way to the exit.  But, are museums textual practices keeping up with the literacy changes of our visitors?

Quick History of Knowledge Acquisition

  • Move from oral to print increases sphere of influence
  • Mass production is partnered with mass consumption of text
  • Technology exponentially increases not only production of but also access to text

When it comes to social change, there are usually two camps: it was better before and it is now wondrous. In terms of knowledge sharing, you might think that we are living in the moment before the mass extinction of books, just waiting for one more meteor from the tech sphere. You might instead think that we are finally in the great democratic (small d) age of knowledge. Either way, it might be useful to step down the historical path of literacy and knowledge sharing.

Knowledge in the early days was transmitted orally. Writing systems were implemented,  effectively separating the words from the speaker/ writing and thereby making ideas highly mobile. Early writing survives on pots and tablets.  And, while mobile, these writing documents were handmade and heavy. Pity the horse asked to transport a set of texts over a hill.

Scrolls helped with the weight of things. Even the most ornery, old mule could take one scroll to the next city-state. But, the codex, or spined-book, changed things. These stackable communication tools could be filled with dissertations and novelizations.  Books were then further improved in as mass media tools with the onset of printing.

Printing changed knowledge forever. Ideas whizzed out of machines in broadsheets, newspapers, pamphlets, posters, and books. Knowledge was now mass media, multi-format, and myriad. Finally, technology took up the charge from printing. Early website information was present in certain situations, like from desktop computers in homes, (remember that iconic buzz of the landline connection?) Smartphones, like the iPhone launched in 2007, meant that knowledge was in your pocket or hand all the time. The smartphone allowed you to get blogs, tweets, feeds, and all the other Web 2.0 tools continuously and continually.

Web 2.0 & Social Media: Faster, Shorter, and MORE

  • User-generated/ change in authority structure
  • High-volume text consumption
  • Writing and reading styles have changed

Web 2.0 with its social media tools made knowledge-work a global activity, hobby, or obsession, depending on where you stand. Everyone is writing all the time. This user-generated content has changed the power structures of knowledge. Users (i.e. readers) are making text to disseminate their ideas. Authority became dispersed being partially displaced from institutions to individuals. This dissemination of authority can be seen as a flowering of democratic knowledge-work or, alternately, an erosion of quality in knowledge-work. While this debate is beyond the topic at hand, those acquiring knowledge are basically reading on the front-line of this authority debate. Readers confront this question with every text that they read. For every like or retweet, they are endorsing the authority of the writer.

And, they are making these assessments in record time. Knowledge is being made faster than ever. An average 1.2 million words are added to Twitter every minute. This is 18 Billion words every day. Almost four TRILLION words every month. And, that is on a single platform. Add all the text your mom is writing about you on Facebook, the captions on Instagram, the food blogs, the comments on those food blogs about the problems with the recipes, the comments on FB posts… You get the point. You live the point. Text inundates readers daily. Rather than being overwhelmed, many are willingly accessing and responding to this text. People are reading more, even as they are reading fewer books. Longform literary texts, with 1000 pages to get to the denouement, has a smaller audience, but short bites are on the rise. In other words, rather than being on the decline, literacy is shifting.

Social media and Web 2.0 texts have changed readers. They expect short and sweet. That said, the long text doesn’t immediately turn them off. They are skimmers. You don’t think so? With the changes in readers, texts and writing are changing.  Look at this text. Its constructed for the skimmers amongst us. There are bold headings, like road signs, for the speeding readers. For the super-fast reader, there will be some quick bullets at the end.  So, why am I putting in all this text, then? b/c you are all looking for something different. In order word, long-form texts are being created to support the diversity of audiences and their differential interests. (Also, age-old norms are changing. Abbreviations are being the norm.)

Transformations in Knowledge-seeking

  • Knowledge seeking is easier than ever
  • Knowledge resources are wide, deep, diverse, broad, and ever-present
  • Knowledge seeking is often broad rather than deep

Along with literacy shifts, Web 2.0 tools have transformed knowledge-seeking. When was the last time you flipped through an encyclopedia to figure out the name for that line that separates two dates in a range? (En-dash, by the way). Now, as a museum/ knowledge worker, you are probably more predisposed to use physical/ analog texts to find answers, but even knowledge-workers Google things. This shift is important in the museum setting. Your viewers know how to look up textual facts. They can find out where Rembrandt was from if they care. They know how to figure out the definition of tempera, and where to watch a video of egg tempera being made. Facts are available to everyone. And, while you might see yourself as the purveyor of the real, verifiable facts, your visitors are also very good at finding answers (and they might have a different idea about what a verifiable fact is).  Your visitors, if motivated, can find any fact they need, but this increased ability to fact-find is not necessarily matched with a concomitant growth in critical reasoning.

The flip-side of this phenomena is that for every museum collection there is a web niche. So, there are knowledge-makers online creating the counterpart to everything. You have a collection of decorative objects, including Wedgewood salt shakers. Look up salt and pepper shakers. You will see an amazing world of savory dec arts. You are a natural history museum with skulls and bugs. Well, I assure you that you have scores of Instagram accounts that would pair nicely with your collection. In other words, you aren’t the only one out there. This phenomenon can be taken in two ways by museums, as an erosion of uniqueness or alternately, and more positively, as an expansion of their community.

What are the implications for Museums?

  • The short version: People are reading more, finding facts all the time, and being inundated with text. Museums need to understand these changes to make better text.

As a society, we are not the readers we were in 2007. This is not a value judgment. This is not about caring less about collection objects. This is about idea dissemination. People are getting info in a different way.

Before you attempt to bemoan the diminished state of knowledge today. Every generation has had some type of knowledge acquisition transition. And, those who are living through these changes are often completely unaware when cognition slowly changes accordingly.

You really only notice the giant jumps, like going back to a long-ago time period. Even the most scholarly of us might find listening to an oration of the Mahabharata for 12 hours or so a little overwhelming. You are not inherently dumber or smarter than the original audience that could sit through that Indian tale of duty. We are trained by society to acquire information. Information that is transmitted in the social vernacular will be more easily acquired. Said differently, people learn as society has trained them to; teach differently or they might not learn.


How do we give museum visitors what they want and need in terms of text? 

Begin by ensuring that the text is suitable for the delivery method. Social media often is entertaining, short, and timely whereas labels are site-specific, informative, and evergreen.

With our visitors becoming savvy information consumers, we need to spend more time and research money on evolving the all our textual information so that our knowledge-ecosystem works for our visitors. We need to be strategic about ideas and knowledge-dissemination. We need to work holistically on the text as a form of access and inclusion. It is imperative, as a field, that we spend time researching labels and think about innovating at that most basic element of our knowledge-ecosystem. If we don’t, our visitors, best case, will just Google it, or worse, stop coming.

Museums have a Problem with Fun (Data)

Museums need visitors. Anyone who flips through an annual report or glances on a website can attest to that fact. But, how do you get them there?

You entice them, of course. But, how do you do that? I can share how I did that. When I used to run programs, I would try to show “fun” through the publicity photos and in the description of the activities. But, saying something was fun always seemed a signal that the experience was anything but. If you need to say is fun, it probably really isn’t.

How do Americans define fun?

This is a challenging question. Ask your best friend, and you might find you differ in your responses. But, looking at spending trends helps form a picture of how society, as a whole, uses their well-earned leisure money and helps us begin to define fun.

Leisure can be defined as an activity that you choose to do for enjoyment.

Since the 1960’s people are working less, and spending almost 7 extra hours a week on leisure.  Similarly, people are spending more money now than they were 50 years ago on leisure. People spend nearly $2500 annually on leisure compared with $850 in 1960.  In other words, leisure is a growth proposition.

Americans spend real money in order to engage in leisure. For example, they spent 100 Billion dollars on sporting-related leisure in 2016.   They spend more than a third of their discretionary income on restaurants.  In 2015, Americans spent an average of $46 per year on arts and culture activities.

According to the American Time Use Survey, on any given weekend (in descending order of time spent), people watch tv, socialize, play sports, relax and think, read, play on the computer, and play games. The range is from 200 minutes of television watching to under 10 for game playing.  (Visual breakdowns offer some stark depictions of the relative scale of each activity.)

Expectedly, perhaps, but the childless have more time for leisure. And, despite education-level,  people do some type of leisure activity every day. In other words, everyone is doing some regularly that’s fun.

Drilling down a bit, what makes these activities enjoyable?

There’s variation, as well, there is variation in people. Some are of these activities are individual and others are collective. Some are within the home and some are outside. Some are affordable and others have great costs. In other words, fun has a great deal of variation. Fun purveyors might only fit in one of these niches, like books which are solitary. But, many fall into various niches.

What connects these activities?   On the whole, they are active and engaging. But, they are also activities where the norms and expectations are clear. Once you learn to read, you don’t need someone to help you engage with a book.  Once you make a friend, you don’t need a list of rules on how to talk to them. Going out to a movie needs a ticket, but not a docent/ intercessor. (See Graphics at the end for details on each of these activities.)

What does this have to do with museums? 

At a time in history where people have more time for leisure, museums attendance is in decline. This negative growth is really a global phenomenon. In the UK, BBC did a study that found that major art museums (National Gallery and Tate) lost 20% of their British audience in a five-year period up to 2014. The NEA found that museum attendance dropped in the US over last decade. 

The competition is steep. People can find plenty of fun at home. As the New York Times wrote in a 2016 article, staying home is the new going out.  More than 50 percent of American’s regularly order food in. Television-watching is the most common leisure activity.

In other words, there is a threshold that must be met to entice people out of their houses. And, this where we circle back to the idea of fun. Fun is about being with people and feeling comfortable doing it.

LaPlacaCohen recently released a report, CultureTrack about Arts and Culture participation. The number one motivator  for arts and culture participation, a staggering 81%, was “fun.”   Over one-third (37%) didn’t see art museums as a cultural experience. (How many art museum people would it as a cultural experience). The Culture Track also helps develop a picture on what types of experiences draw people. And what did they think was fun? They enjoyed experiences that were outside of traditional institutions, like public art.  They see cultural experiences as interactive & collective. They want to be engaged rather than just receiving information.

People want leisure that doesn’t require onboarding, that isn’t going to make them feel out of place, and that isn’t hard. They want experiences that engage through content that is real and interesting. In other words, culture shouldn’t be hard; it should be fun.

Why do museums need to work so hard to get people to feel included in their spaces? 

Recently, I was chatting with a friend who works at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. This is a museum that has really made an effort to model and act fun in their spaces and programs. She was sharing her successes at serving as an ambassador to community members. She mentioned that the best community ambassador has a certain amount of built-in obsolescence. Once you get people connected to the museum, they don’t need you anymore.  On that score she is right. And, I have no doubt that she does a great job.

But, I asked her, and I ask you, what other leisure experience has ambassadors actively trying to get people to see the space as theirs. I mean–is the NFL really working super hard to get people to see that sitting in freezing temperatures, drinking beer with your friends, and yelling at men in tights is fun?

What are we doing wrong? 

One big thing is that we fundamentally don’t project “fun”. Think of the ways that we think of our spaces and our exhibition programs. We start with considering scholarly attributes and see how the idea blends the existing museum norms. We don’t start with the visitor.

Now, exhibition folks out there will say that they try to put in a few blockbusters every year. In other words, we look back at things that worked in our paradigms that drew visitors to get more of those same visitors.

This disconnection deals with some fundamental challenges:

  • Museums people, personally, often have a rarified or specialized sense of “fun”
  • Museums often see fun at odds with scholarship
  • Museums see “fun” as being for children
  • Museum spaces are meant to serve as both individual and social spaces; the fun norms can be drastically different and oppositional
  • Museums don’t make their rules and norms clear so people don’t know how to have fun there
  • Museums focus on content-transmission rather than experiences

How can museums be more fun? 

This is a billion dollar question (ask the sporting industry). If you manage this, you won’t be crossing your fingers on the blockbusters. You will be drawing new people who are willing to put on pants and leave their couch. You get new people. You will find those people that you are always wondering about (the non-museum-goers.)

And as LaPlacaCohen notes, our potential visitors are “necessitating a reassessment of experiences and services offered.”

You need to:

  • First, let’s not fake it. Don’t write fun in any add you write for your museum.
  • Spend time understanding what people actually this is fun. This can be going to Yayoi Kusuma but it can also be sitting down with friends. Don’t use yourself as the ruler for fun. Really look into other industries.
  • Use the lens of fun as a way to measure the relative value of programs.
  • Don’t demean play and fun in your own planning and thinking. Stop using the phrase, just a play space or just for people who want fun.
  • Center play in your own practice. Make fun part of your work. People can tell when you are bored.

(Also, why Americans? What about international readers? Well, friends, fun is relative and cultural. While somethings go across many societies, like alcohol, others are highly culture-specific. For example, never seen anyone from England posting about going to their alma mater’s home-coming football came while painted in their team’s colors head to toe.)

Addendum: Breakout on Leisure Activities.



Cost-Benefit Analysis of Docent Programs (Data Template)

How can you quantify and assess the relative benefit of staff teachers to docents? Not easily, truthfully. This is a fuzzy math problem, at best. But, before I lay out some ways to consider this, let me offer some useful thoughts and questions to help you on your path.

Mission-Driven & Client-Driven

Most, if not all, museums have education in their mission. Yet, education is the most likely element of the mission largely delegated to volunteers. What does that mean? Simplistically, one might see a value proposition; education is the only mission-driven function that can be value-engineered to be accomplished for free.

But, this simplistic notion is patently untrue. Docent programs are far from free. Using volunteer educators can be as much about meeting the need as trying to do so in a cost-effective manner.  In some areas, there might be more need for gallery teachers than available staff. Without docents, they would not be able to meet that need.

That said, cost-effective or meeting need are only two elements in decision-making. Meeting the need in budget only counts if you meet the need well. If you meet this need badly, eventually you will look clients and the need will go down.

Costs and Benefits

Before running the numbers, let’s think of ideas. There are several ways to think about the advantages and drawbacks for docent programs. Let’s create a sort of ledger of ideas.

Costs: (you can also download these as a table for you to fill out)

Easily quantifiable costs: Some costs are easy to tally. Think about things that show up in your budget ledgers. Every year, you spend X about of money for a docent party. If you don’t have a staff party, or you make it potluck, the docent program is costlier.

Relatively easy to quantify costs: Parking is another quantifiable cost at some institutions. It is one that I always dreaded in my monthly ledger. Most docent programs are considerably larger than staff-led programs. As a result, many more parking spots would be used for docents than staff. Why calculate parking if it doesn’t show up in your ledger? Parking is a finite resource in most areas. If your staff and volunteers use spaces, you are displacing paying people.

Complicated costs: Other costs are harder to quantify but important to understand. Think about printing. My first museum job, one that I proudly earned after getting a master’s degree, was to photocopy out of print books for the docent program. Think a little about the costs there, leaving aside my salary for the moment. There is the cost of the paper and the printing ink but also wear and tear of the printer. That poor, sweet machine, my old office-buddy, bit the dust long before any of the other machines in the building. As a rule, docent programs have far higher printing requirements than staff-led programs. Why? A few reasons. First, staff usually have broader access to libraries and the stacks than volunteers. Second, staff often come in with degrees and as such don’t need copies of books. Thirdly, staff is expected to have the education underpinnings to be able to find and use the appropriate resources. I cannot remember a time when I was a gallery teacher that my boss gave me a printed book, but I certainly remember her checking my sources.

The most imperative, and perhaps hardest to quantify cost comparison is in terms of staff time. In terms of staff time, what percentage of your staff interacts with docents, particularly those who don’t have the word “docent” in their title. Think about the variety of people impacted by docents. How much of your security staff is spending time reprinting badges? How much of your curatorial assistants’ time is spent answering questions for docents? What about time spent communicating protocol changes? How much of the visitor experience staff is spending time answering docent questions? You might find that every division is spending time working with docents. I am not making a value judgment; I assure you. When we get to benefits, you will see that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Opportunity losses: Finally, make sure to account for opportunity costs. Where are you wasting money without even knowing it? For example, most docent programs have a room that is easily accessible to those with low-level access. In other words, they occupy a space that could be used for visitors or for fund-generating programming. Account for each opportunity lost when you use resources for docents.

Benefits: (you can also download these as a table for you to fill out)

Benefits are the portion of this equation that pushes us into fuzzy math. I want to diverge for a moment into a memory. Not too long ago, I was at the funeral for a docent I knew from my days in museum education. I sat at one of the largest churches in Cleveland, a town with ecclesiastical structures of scale, looking down at more than 100 people touched by this one docent’s commitment to one museum. Time and time again during the service, people shared that they learned to value the museum through the eyes of this one man. This docent happened to be an extraordinary man; he was the kind of person who knew teaching required constantly learning. But, his life also shows how part of the value of docent programs is “the love they share.”

The unquantifiable: Hyper-committed individuals populate docent programs. These people have the time to lavish time on an institution, and their bank accounts usually reflect his ability to spend time at your museum. Docent programs are donor groups, marketing machines, as well as teaching forces.  Staff teachers are not going to be able to donate the amount of money that docents are. And, in terms of the soft benefit of marketing, most staff teachers don’t regale their friends with the type of unmitigated love for a museum that docents do. Docents are in it for the love; it’s their avocation. (After all, staff usually gets to see the good and bad; and we all enjoy taking a break from work)

Quantify marketing benefits: So, how are we going to think about this? Well, let’s think a little bit about some concrete things. You can think about things like the number of times docents share your messaging. Compare that to staff messaging.

Quantify donations: Most museum educators don’t have the ability to donate money, but some do. Compare what money comes in from docents compared with staff. In many ways, in your docent program, you are creating a highly engaged donor class. You might not have been able to get these donors without this type of engagement.

Quantify Total Percentage of Actual Teaching Capacity: More than anything else, docents allow you to impact more patrons. There is no way to argue that 80 people can teach more people than 8. It is important to quantify this. (I have created a spreadsheet to help you do this.) Additionally, numbers are an essential metric when showing value; grants, for example, usually seem the number of people served as a measure of success.

Visitor Experience

But, now here is the wrinkle. Is the docent program helping you get out the best product? One way to think about that is to see if your program is growing. Now, be warned many variables impact growth or decrease in any program. But, comparing the change in scale with visitor feedback will help you get a picture of perception of quality. In other words, if the numbers are going up, and your reviews are good, the docents are probably doing good work.

Yet, the equation is still not complete. Think about what your visitors might want. Schools might be asking for in-depth programming that teaches specific standards with measurable assessments. Can you train your docents to do that? Will your docents want to do that? Will your docents do that well? How much time will you spend training them? Will this eventually result in greater benefits (more students, more grants, and/ or more revenue)? (Remember, also, in the US, volunteers cannot do work that is a staff function, so be careful not to accidentally start a tussle with the Department of Labor.)

Now for the Numbers

Years ago, when I got through 1/2 of business school, I had a terrible revelation that accounting is magic. And while that is a story for another day, it is important to remember what I stated over and over here. This will be fuzzy math.

Take your notes from the costs and the benefits and start adding them to the spreadsheet. Do this for the docent program. Then do this for a staff-led experience.  Now add your visitor experience information. Which one outweighs the other?

In the end, your equation should be:

Docents: Costs + Visitor Experience Opportunity Losses VS Benefits + Visitor Experience Benefits 

Staff: Costs + Visitor Experience Opportunity Losses VS Benefits + Visitor Experience Benefits 


Where does this leave you? Well, you will likely come up with useful data but not an answer.  One will side of this scale will be higher. Visitor experience considerations might make staffing a better choice. The scale of impact might make docents a better choice.

You might not be able to make a change due to hard cash. After all, even if staff is a better choice, you might not have the money to hire them, right now. So, why do this?  Well, this is the kind of planning tool that will help you move forward in a strategic manner toward your best solution for putting your mission of education into action.

Exhibition Cocktails or Why Museums Need User Experience Designers

I admit that I am biased.  I am a trained User Experience Designer.  But, you don’t have to has an M.S. to know that visitors come to museums for experiences. Now, we could get into a debate about the type of experience. Sitting quietly in a gallery is a type of experience.  We often think of our spaces as nouns (Chinese paintings, fossils, penguins), but visitors think of them as experiences (go to the art museum, look at the dinosaurs, wander in the zoo).

User Experience is about shifting all the activities from the institution doing the serving (the museum) to the person being served (the visitor). Even the word visitor has challenging connotations. The word visitor does not indicate the interactional nature of the experience. Patron might be better. Despite the challenges with that word, patron does indicate that a choice has been made. That person has chosen to patronize this establishment to do something.

Many activities in the museum-sphere also change, such as interpretation/ education/ or content in this framework. (I find interpretation a challenging term. It implies a sort of power differential, where  some special person serves an an intercessor for knowledge. Interestingly, this term is most often associated with art museums further implying that art is about getting it. But, that is for another blog post...)

If you think about a person walking into a space, all the ideas should enhance the experience. You might think of the experience as a volume, like a cup. Everything that is written (signs, labels, etc) are about getting the right recipe for the best cocktail.  Now, while I don’t mean to imply that being in an exhibition is like drinking, the right mix of exhibition elements can be intoxicating.  So, the act of putting it all together, developing all the elements is about facilitating an experience. Writing then becomes about distilling an experience into words rather than just transmitting ideas.

The ideas as still there, in case someone has started screaming, she wants to dumb it down. Instead, you look at the experience that would make people be the most receptive to the ideas, and then use that  as your guide for writing. What does change in this scenario is writing for writing sake. This is hard! I love the written word (I do after all blog every week). But, when we preference the word to the feeling, we are not centering our patrons. We are centering ourselves and our needs.

In user-centered interpretation, labels, panels, audio, etc, all are like animals in an ecosystem, and the Interpretation/ Education staff are the unseen mechanism that keeps everything in balance. They might also be more than an invisible force. They create ways to test content, such as understanding emotional impact of tone. They help make sure that the experience improves iteratively.  Most of all, they are the advocate for the patrons.

Finally, in a design shop, the knowledge and value of the user experience designer is important to brand success.  Rather than being at the bottom of the hierarchy, their knowledge set is integral, being part of inception to completion of projects.  In user-centered museums, education/ interpretation is there throughout on all sorts of projects so as to ensure the ideal experience. They understand that good vibes make for happy, repeat users.  After all, if you want your patrons to toast the great times at your museums, they have to feel your brand.



5 Steps to Better Community Conversations

Community conversations can be instrumental in the growth of an organization. However, they can also be an organizations down fall.  These 5 steps can help anyone participating in an conversation, particularly those in power positions or from an organizations.

Honor People’s Perception

We all filter the world through our experiences. Therefore, everyone’s perception of reality will differ. When leading community conversations, listen to others’ perceptions of a situation, and accept that as their reality. It might match yours, but that does not make it any less real to them.  Craft your work to resonate with their perceptions.

Concrete Step: When someone shares their personal experience, listen. Then don’t contradict them. Imagine they say that your organization is not accessible, and your job is to make it accessible. Don’t contradict them. Instead, listen. Try to think out the disconnects between your actions and their perceptions.  Probe them for better knowledge if you can’t see where the disconnects are occurring.

Honor Emotions

Emotions underlie our actions and decisions. Even seemingly logical decisions are imbued with emotions. Emotions are not all bad; they are want make people passionate about your institution. Don’t shut emotions down. As you hear words, also listen to emotions. Make sure your planning takes into account the issues that bring out negative emotions in your audience. Build on positive emotions.

Concrete Step: Let people get upset. Don’t ask them to calm down.  If they are that worked up, then they have some strong ties to your organization or the issue at hand.

Honor Value

Value is hard to quantify. You honor your institution and its work. But, you need to see what new audiences value.  Hear what new audiences value. Then figure out which of your programs and services match your new audiences core values.

Concrete Step:  Value is hard to articulate, sometimes. But, actions often indicate value. So, if they are using your organization, what parts are they using? If they aren’t, what are they doing instead?

Honor Honest Communication

New audiences might communicate in different ways that your existing audience. This can be jarring. But, go with it. Also, you might want to mask emotions through jargon. Don’t! Use clear, concise language. Don’t mask emotions or your discomfort with coded language. If you speak respectfully and honestly, you will be able to connect with new audiences.

Concrete Step: Use the words you mean. If you want to increase African-American audiences, don’t use the word diversity. That said, be honest about why you hope to reach that group. Maybe, they are the majority population in your region.  Great! (Maybe, you think that will be great for funding. Well, than, this is not as great. This sort of pandering will be obvious and less successful. So, go back to the drawing board if this is where you are.)

Honor Your Audience

Any audience, new or old, will be less invested in your work than you are.  You need to connect with them through your communication, but also through actions.  Conversation without action fundamentally disrespects your audience.

Concrete Step:   Don’t start a community conversation if you don’t plan to take actions based on their responses. As above, if your motives are to check a box or please a funder, you will not be successful. You need to actually mean to change your community if you start asking them for help.  If you don’t, they will be alienated and they will remember.