The Interpretation Ecosystem

Interpretation can be defined in many ways for museums, but the term is most often associated with labels.   In actuality, interpretation should be everything that is information about your collection. Ideally, you are thinking about a whole ecosystem of ideas from information without an intercessor, like a label, to information disseminated by people, like a class.

This graph uses the scale of the circle for the relative usage. The overlaps show an audience sector that uses multiples forms of interpretation. Notice that the smallest overlap by area is the one that uses all of the forms of interpretation.

Visitor feedback is an essential part of planning your strategy. Ideally, you will work through quantitative and qualitative data to model your content ecosystem. Your relative circles might be very different than the generalized one above. You might find that you have a smaller social media footprint but a larger one for classes. (This might be true if your audience skews older).

You need to balance visitor feedback with professional opinion.  Which stories do you feel you must share? Which ideas are most relevant to visitors? Which ideas will draw people to the object? Which ideas will inspire people?  Once you know what you want to offer visitors, and what visitors enjoy, you need to split your ideas by interpretation tool. Some tools can handle many ideas. Some do better with few ideas. The tools themselves will in part determine which ideas go where. Social media is a wonderful image driven field, so don’t shoe-horn long text in there. Catalogs can handle many ideas in a long narrative format.

Developing an interpretation strategy is challenging without a doubt. You need to work through legacy issues and smooth out the variety of cultures in your organizational work-flow.  But, with a strategy in place, in the long run, you will be able to develop content more efficiently.

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This is the sixth 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

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

Engaging Interpretation

 

When Content is Global : Digital Interpretation

At the core, museums offer the interpretation to offer people connections to collections. Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s director, says, “What we really want to do is humanize history.” The delivery method matters on one key level. Technology allows for vast off-site interpretation. But, even when visitors are not in the museum,  as Karen Franscona, Boston Museum of Fine Arts Director of Public Relations,  suggests interpretation still seeks “to explain things and expose our works of art to people who may have never come to our museum.”

Why use Technology-delivered Interpretation? 

People use technology. 88 percent of Americans used the Internet, and therefore a form of technology, in 2016.  Technology has allowed museums to become global as never before. Now your audience has grown from those who came onsite to those your find your presence (by choice or by surprise). Half of the visitors to the website are not planning a visit, for example. The museum’s largest audience sector might be those who don’t ever visit onsite.

Technology is a utility, not unlike electricity. Just as you use electricity to turn on the light in a classroom or to power your ticketing computers, technology fuels multiple functions of the museum–and multiple parts of our visitors’ lives.  They use it to buy plane tickets, read the news, and talk to friends. Technology is not for X, it’s for X,Y,Z.   Museums need to meet various needs equally well.

The content on technology has to be as good as anywhere else in the organization if not better. Your audience is particularly knowledgeable about bad content on technology. They use it all the time. Social media can’t be solely a sales channel. That would be the equivalent of a newspaper only being coupon circulars.  Interactives can’t just be bells and whistles.

So, start with the idea and the audience.Before we think a little about interpretation for technology, we might go back to the issues of writing labels. Museums create content for multiple audiences.  These audiences often have disparate needs.

 

Technology allows you to meet the differentiated needs of visitors better than ever.  You can produce content that combines visuals and text in a sophisticated manner.  Technology can be updated and more quickly relevant. You can meet respond to current events with incredible speed and specificity.

Each of these users can tap into multiple and differentiated engagements with your collection. Digital allows for better differentiation by format for the audience. Personalization is what people want. The visit to the site may be the reason that they are accessing technology-delivered interpretation or the impetus for using your off-site technology resources. They may never visit. Your technology, particularly social media, might reach those who otherwise would never even thinking about your museum.

In other words, technology interpretation can serve your existing audience better or draw new audiences. The numbers can be astonishing.  Art Institute of Chicago has about 1.5 million onsite visitors and 706000 on social media. LACMA 1.2 Million onsite and 2 million on social media platforms.

Technology-based interpretation writers, therefore, might have scores more consumers of their ideas than label writers. (Usually, these aren’t the same person). They are all likely using the same source information derived from the curator, say a catalog or curatorial write-up.

How should you use technology-delivered interpretation? 

  • Create purpose-built content for deployment. Just as you wouldn’t cut the catalog entry from the book to use as a label, don’t use the same text on the web as in social.  Remember people consume ideas differently when reading technology. Understand that people’s needs can be different even for the same technology tool. For example,  visitors to the website have many needs, so that are different than onsite visitors (such as planning your visit.)
  • Create connect that extends relationships.  Find ways that encourage people to check back. Show the installation process in phases. Be transparent about testing technology. Make the premature birth of an animal a national obsession. Let technology help your organization be honest with visitors.
  • Use each technology tool to its best ability. For example, social media is an engagement tool. Jonas Heide Smith shares in his Museums and the Web paper that social media can maximize reach but also add new levels of engagement within the institution and with new audiences. Think of your own experiences. Do you use your public Instagram to ask your mom to bring you dinner? (Also, don’t ask your mom to bring you dinner.)  And, then research numbers on what the general population is doing on different platforms.
  • Embrace content co-creation. People are already using technology to make and share content, mostly pictures. Allow them to do so, and then applaud them for it by amplifying their reach through shares on your channels. For example, social media, with “Take-overs” events allow museums to change the balance of power in content creation.
  • Don’t assume. Test! Much has been made about the youthful demographics on technology. But, don’t be the museum that assumes that ‘all the kids want X.’ Social media particularly allows you to try many different approaches fairly affordably. You might find that your funny meme is particularly popular with the older folks–they have smartphones too.
  • Be Game but Don’t Play Games:  Humor is incredibly challenging in print. Think of all those lame jokes that don’t come off in texts from your dad. Museums can certainly speak in the vernacular of the media but do it thoughtfully. Everyone knows when you are pandering. There are scores of examples of brands doing so, so wrong on social. Don’t be those brands.
  • Invest.  Right now, there are inherent time and money disparities in the field in general, but definitely in content creation. Curators spend years on catalogs and labels and social media needs to turn it around in minutes for pennies on the dollar. Without completely going into the issues with museum hierarchies, let’s focus on digital content. Make a plan that you can afford. Choose the platform that you can staff. And, then do that really well.

Many people have written about this much better than I, so here is also a sampling:

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This is the fifth 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

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

Engaging Interpretation

 

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:

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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

Labels in the world of Information Overload

Interpretation, Content, and the Use of Text in Museums

Self-Care for Museum Workers (Book)

Our new book, Objective Lessons: Self-Care for Museum Professional, focuses on the people who make museums work.

Self-care is basically the practice of ensuring that you maintain your best self. This book is a focused look at the professionals working in the cultural sector.

This active workbook blends object-based learning and creative expression. This is not a book that you read from cover to cover in one sitting. Instead, this is the type of book that you use with a pencil in hand to actively engage in self-care exercises.

What is Self-Care? 

Self-care is basically a process of making sure that you aren’t burned to the core. You make sure to keep your inner-self nourished and whole. It isn’t about being selfish or self-focused. Instead, it is about self-preservation. Self-care is about making yourself ready for anything the world throws at you.

What will I get from the book? 

Truthfully, you are the only one who can answer that question. This is the type of the book that amplifies your efforts, but only if you use this book with a constructive mindset. If you are not willing to take the leap, this is not the book for you.

How does the book work? 

This book is a playful workbook that takes you through a process that focuses on positivity, imagination, and practical planning. Each spread offers a metaphor about self-care in the form of a short object label. This metaphor is then followed by an activity to keep on the path towards optimum self-care.

Where can you get the book? 

The book is available in print through Amazon as well as many other sources. You can also get the kindle version for considerably less money, though you will need to invest in a ream of paper to do your activities.  Make the choice that works for your budget, but the print book is considerably more effective, I believe.

Check out my #MCN2017 Ignite Presentation about this concept: 

Slides

Spotify Playlist

Download the press release: 

Objective Lessons Press Release

Objective Lessons Press Release with Images

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.)

 

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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

Labels in the world of Information Overload

Labels in the World of Information Overload (Blog / Graphics )

  • From the museum point of view, they help audience connect to collections
  • Visitors differ in their needs by sector.
  • Designing one label for multiple audiences is impossible
  • Visitor evaluation will help evolve labels to meet new needs
  • Digital content needs to be a priority and purpose-built

While text abounds in museums, the most ubiquitous element of text, the label, is a particularly challenging element in terms of literacy shifts. The label is more likely to be read than any other text in an installation.

Having written literally hundreds and hundreds of labels in my tenure, I have spent a great deal of time thinking of these little bits of text. I spent time trying to cram everything in. I have then moved to pulling out 2-3 good ideas. I have played with the literary labels, descriptive labels, and humorous labels. I have cried about labels (well, not cried, but moaned certainly.)

In earlier eras, when text and knowledge were not omnipresent, labels could offer a single lens look at the art. In the age before phones, labels had little competition as purveyors of knowledge. But, now, visitors are standing next to that bit of vinyl choosing to read your text or use their phone to get information.

What are labels for?

From the point of view of the museum, the label helps the visitor know what the object is and then gain at least one access point. R.J. Loomis suggested that labels are a way to “bridge the knowledge gap” in a 1983 article about the Denver Art Museum (cited here).

Labels are the voice of the museum when a person isn’t standing there. A good interpretation plan, and planner, can do well to consider the idea questions to answer. In my time in museums, we have made several positive changes. Interpretation folks and some curators are doing better at writing in an accessible way, above the vernacular but below the scholarly. We are doing better at using ideas to make people feel smart while not using highfalutin language that makes them feel dumb. We are doing better at helping the whole field work on labels that work for visitors, from the V&A’s label guidelines or the Te Papa’s extensive label and exhibition guidelines.  

In my nearly two decades of label-writing, I have held many truths sacred. For example, I have always used Beverly Serrell’s ten commandments including make it short and sweet and start with a visual reference as benchmarks for my writing.  Like most label writers, I have wanted to find a way to take an idea that I feel is important about the object and make it into something relevant for the visitor.

Each collection object is really a locus of ideas.  The label writer (curator or educator) tries to choose a lens that would increase the appreciation of the object but can be explained in 100 words or less. This is an awesome task, taken in the original sense of the word. You have so many facets you might choose. Even in exhibition labels, where you have a meta-narrative to frame your writing, you have so many possible items to choose as the subject of your label. 

In the best-case scenarios, you, label writer, do your best. You use your professional experience. You also think about your audience. But, here in lies a major challenge for museums. We have different audiences for our labels. Our donors, other scholars and power users of museums have very different needs than our general audiences. Here is a situation where the disparity in the audience needs to be considered when developing a solution.

What is the role of the label from the point of the visitor?

First and foremost, they are looking for a label. The word itself is useful. Outside a museum when you label something, you mark that object with a textual description. Imagine finding a sealed box in your home with the label, “Boxes of this type were well-known in previous period as containing toxic and noxious materials.”

Infrequent visitors might seek labels as they are unfamiliar with the objects. But, similarly, they will be more likely to stop using them if they don’t meet their expectation.  They are hoping to find more about that thing:

  • They might have a question in mind that they hope to have answered.
  • They might want to learn a little
  • They might just want help “getting it”

In other words, their needs are broad. You can’t do it all for them on the paper label.

Looking at it we have a good number of people (Infrequent and regular visitors), who have a need for fairly general information. Within that group, you have a small portion that is especially unlikely to know your norms. This small group, infrequent visitors, is incredibly important. In design, they often say design for the extremes. In other words, pay special care to the people who have special needs, and everyone will feel special. So, when you work hard to make sure your labels meet these infrequent visitors, your regular visitors will win.

But, now to the challenge. Here is one situation when the extremes have drastically different needs. Your labels cannot easily meet both the needs of infrequent visitors and the frequent visitors concurrently. The power-user wants deep, specific information. The majority of the audience want broad, general information. If you use your label for both of these audiences, you are not going to meet the needs of either audience. Your infrequent visitor will be turned off by the depth and your frequent visitor will feel disappointed or even that you are condescending to them.

And, herein is a bigger problem, who are you designing for? You are designing for an audience that consumes more content and more quickly.

What technology have to do with labels? 

First, labels can’t exist in a vacuum. The challenge becomes when the institution’s voice doesn’t address what visitors are asking. That paper label cannot address every question that the visitors are asking.  Labels need to respond to the fact that visitors are different. As we started this post, they are standing there with their phone in hand, and yet choosing to read what you offer. Are you responding to their generosity in-kind? Are you trying to give them what they need or what you need?

The label now needs to evolve. We need to better understand why people are choosing to walk over to that label. A 2015 New York Times article hailed the growing importance of labels (and digital text) and pointed to the many schools of thought on labels.   Yet, the article didn’t point out something important–we really need to align our labels with the changes in how visitors use text.  We need to do the work to research this essential problem. Earlier studies suggest that people use labels, but these studies need to be updated.  We need to see what the culture of skimming means for labels. Maybe we need more text? Maybe we need bullets?  Maybe we need links to broad sources online? I have no idea because I am not the average museum visitor. That is why we as a field cannot answer this without visitors evaluation.

When labels don’t keep in touch with the real world, visitors will notice the lapse. For example, the fates deemed that the “Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. should run currently with Bill Cosby’s alleged sexual misconduct trials. Visitors enjoying the artwork also had to confront a quote by the man who was being discussed on every news channel as a rapist. Given the length of planning, those labels were edited and printed long before the news broke. The poor installer who was carefully making sure the label was square could not have known of the prosecutors’ careful work on the Cosby indictments. But, either way, once the news broke, they put a disclaimer on the website but retained the print label. In other words, they wanted to maintain the “curatorial sanctity” of the gallery and displaced the real issues to the virtual sphere.  Projecting authority and neutrality is problematic for the museum and visitors. For the museum, neutrality obfuscates continuing scholarship. For the visitors, this causes confusion and/or results in eventual distrust of the museum.

Visitors are now very used to technology as their consumption method for ideas.  So first and foremost, it frees the label from being the only form of communication. Many museums have jumped on this pleasure, diverting content to other digital tools. However, now, our audiences have become discerning.  This means that we need to do much better with text:

  • We need to develop purpose-built text for digital tools. They are not labels. They are not being used by the people who use a label. They are for the power-users.
  • We need to understand that numbers aren’t the key to making decisions about content. Even if the pick up for digital might be a subset of the general audience, they consume at a high level. They also allow museums to share their greatest asset, their knowledge to a great degree.
  • Put time and money into digital writing. It matters a lot to the consumers. These consumers know bad digital writing.
  • Learn what good digital writing means. This is essential. Digital text is not just a digital label. Work with the whole team to understand good digital writing. Museum staff often consume very different types of writing than their audiences.

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

Previous Post:

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

 

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.