02 May

Really Hearing Our Visitors

I have generally prided myself on a kind of democratic, small d, form of museum work. I proudly took on visitor-centered aspects of the work. I have helped Cavs fans make signs for the largest parade our city had seen; I rode in a giant artwork inspired parade float (Schreckengost’s Jazz Bowl) in front of thousands of viewers; I have crawled through galleries pretending to be a puma. I saw myself as a populist, someone who does the work because I like people.

I hope this little enumeration of my credentials sounds like pride before the fall. It is.

Last weekend, I went to the 36th Annual Western Reserve Writers Conference held at the Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL). An age ago, I worked on a project that partnered with the person in charge of that writing center, and I always respected her. I am also in the midst of editing my two YA manuscripts in my scant, but luxurious, spare time. David Giffels, a northeast Ohio writer of some renowned having been discussed in the New York Times and other fancy publications, was to be the keynote speaker. I’d heard Giffels speak before, and he was equal parts self-effacing and thoughtful. Listening to David Giffels speak at CCPL seemed an ideal way to kickstart my work.

His keynote was a meditation on inspiration and action. I finished the keynote feeling ready to tackle my novel. But, then, there were to be a series of workshops, one run by Giffels. And, the kind Friends of South Euclid Library had provided Swiss Miss-style hot cocoa. It had been ages since I had indulged in hot cocoa. Staying seemed like a great idea.

Hot cocoa in hand, computer open, I watched Giffels lead our class. He led us through a few exercises he does in his university classroom. The first exercise was to describe an object using all the senses. It took some self-restraint not to yell “ekphrasis.” Then, as with all workshops, he asked a few people to share. One of the participants had written an interpretation of her object rather than just write descriptors. I judged her for not following the rules. Giffels, on the other hand, rolled with it. He praised elements of the work, smiling affably. For the rest of the session, I watched him meet people where they were with what they offered him. He genuinely seemed interested in the participants. He was in the moment, with his students.

The ability to meet people where they are and connect without judgment is rare, in part because it contradicts the group-cohesion nature of many types of social practice. Groups often have unspoken norms and police behavior to determine who falls within the group. Museums function in this manner. Many potential visitors avoid museums for fear of breaching the unspoken norms of our spaces. We support the exclusive nature of our spaces, and our in-group of museum-goers, by making the norms inscrutable, like using subtle or non-existent signage about appropriate behavior. When museums look at making spaces more accessible, they are hoping new visitors will conform to existing norms.

What does the issue of signs have to do with Giffels and my judgmental subconscious? Giffels reminded me that when we work with people, we can’t judge them for their difference. Truly listening to people means you have to be open and kind. You can offer them some rules, but they might not follow them. And, some rules shouldn’t be enforced at the sacrifice of a good experience. Connecting person to person has enormous value.

When we look at our visitors, we can’t perform inclusion while maintaining practices of exclusion, both on the institutional level but also personally. We need to not just talk about listening to people, all people; we need to hear them. We need to step out of expectations and into a shared space of communication. Speaking together people can help us create a shared language. Ekphrasis means nothing to most people, but talking about “what do you see” can, but only if you allow any answer to that question, instead of just one “right” one.