Setting the Stage for Great AR/ VR Projects

Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) are tantalizing prospects for museums. These technologies offer museums a chance to engage visitors differently, while at the same time appearing cutting-edge.

In early September, the American Alliance of Museums and the Knight Foundation fostered a conversation about immersion. Museum professionals along with practitioners discussed AR, VR, and Immersion. Their conversations touched on some of the tensions that museum professionals feel about this new technology.

Cost was foremost amongst people’s concerns. Museums consistently feel the pinch of tight budgets. New technology can be a chance to gain additional funding, through grants. These grants might mean that the project costs are separate from the operating budget, but the organization can still be taxed. New projects pull capacity from existing projects.

Staff also feared the motivations and effects of implementing such projects. Many organizations might jump into “shiny new” projects without shoring up their internal capacity and infrastructure. Managers often lack the knowledge to make good decisions about digital. As a result, projects can fail even before they are launched.

These challenges are valid. AR and VR remain newer technology. Their impact on the museum-goers remains somewhat uncertain. Without clear impact studies, implementation costs can be hard to justify. The risks seem enormous.

However, the gains are greater. Immersion offers visitors new ways to engage. Both technology and non-technology immersion are becoming an important form of engagement throughout society.  Museums risk more by not considering AR, VR, and immersion. The tools might not be right for all museums, but its imperative for museum professionals to understand immersive tools well enough to make informed decisions for their constituencies.

Ideally, museum professionals start by focusing on the visitor experience (VX) as a big picture. Everything within the institution should connect to their overall VX strategy. Then, they need to take stock of their internal abilities, both interpretive and technological. This step is essential but also challenging. Museums are often unable to assess holes in their capacity. Consultants can be helpful in lending an outside eye to determine the state of things. This foundation is essential before moving forward on any AR/VR project.

With the price tag in mind, museums might invest in AR/VR projects with permanency in mind. This approach is foolhardy. Instead, museums should go in planning obsolesce. Ignoring change will not make the pace of technological evolution slow. Focusing on the content can help stem some of the fear of investing in ephemeral technology. The ideas content will be evergreen even if the technology changes.

If AR or VR is the right tool for the ideas and the audience, the museum should develop processes that foster experimentation and iteration. Ideal processes should involve research, not just testing. Staff from many departments should be involved and make an impact on the project, not solely senior executives or tech staff. Early in the project the whole team should confirm the goals, outcomes, and define a common language.

AR and VR can be extraordinary or unnecessary, with the difference being the implementation. All engagement fails when it is produced thoughtlessly. Museum AR and VR projects will fail if they focus on the technology rather than the ideas. However, focusing on ideas alone is not enough. The organization has to be ready to launch such projects. Most museums require internal growth and planning to be able to develop successful AR and VR projects. But, these changes can reap huge benefits in meeting visitors in new, exciting ways.

Immersion and Museums

In early September, the Knight Foundation sponsored an event at the Detroit Institute of Arts called Immersion in Museums: AR, VR or Just Plain R?. Here are some reflections from the day.  

Waning attendance has museum professionals seeking novel ways to increase audiences. Many institutions are looking to immersive technology as salvation for their visitation woes. Technology alone, however, will not ensure the future of museum attendance. Museums need to develop engaging, immersive experiences to buoy to transform their attendance.

Museums, Technology, and Immersion Now

Technology appeals to museum executives hoping to counteract criticism of being stodgy or old-fashioned. While a decade ago museums often placed technology in sequestered spaces creating an immersive environment by virtue of their physical installation, the most successful recent technology projects are informational rather than immersive. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art gained wide notoriety for their SendMe SFMOMA project, where users could text words to receive corresponding objects. The millions of users increased their awareness of SFMOMAs collection through short, transactional moments. SendMeSFMOMA’s success was predicated on employing mainstream tools to deliver surprising content. Akron Art Museum’s Dot Chatbot is like a virtual educator, answering questions in real time.

At the same time, museums are in the midst of a non-technology immersion trend. Yayoi Kusuma’s exhibition, Infinite Mirrors, invites people to walk into transformative spaces, many employing mirrors to heighten the effect. The exhibition sold out in venues across the country, with second-party sellers asking hundreds of dollars for a single ticket. While Kusuma’s earliest rooms date to the 1960s, her work’s popularity increased exponentially, thanks to cell phones and social media. Celebrities like Beyonce and Ivanka Trump proudly posted pictures of themselves in her Infinite Mirrors exhibition on their Instagram. The success of the exhibition can be seen as due to the popular zeitgeist rather than the immersive qualities of the works. Visitors want to visit the rooms to photograph themselves in the space.

However, Kusuma’s recent spike in popularity has spawned many immersive museum experiences. The Museum of Ice Cream, the Museum of Selfies, and the Color Factory are examples of immersive spaces. Rather than looking at collections, visitors play in installations. The most successful built immersive experience is not a museum at all, but the artist-made space, MeowWolf, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Artists Golda Blaise and Vince Kadlubek, in collaboration with a larger team, turned an abandoned bowling alley into an interactive artwork. Speaking in Detroit, Kadlubek noted that immersive experiences allow people the agency to drive their engagement. In the MeowWolf experience, visitors are awarded for their curiosity with sensory excess and pleasure. Immersion is a positive feedback loop that drives the enjoyment.

Low-tech immersion has a long history in museums. Specimens and artworks from the world over flooded into Western collections displayed to quell the voracious European intellectual interests. Beginning in 1812, John Soane, an early prophet of museums, filled his London home with his collection of 45,000 objects.  Visitors today, like those of Soane’s time, can be awed, inspired, and even overwhelmed by Soane’s collecting prowess. Public museums in the 19th century continued Soane’s practice of displaying objects in dense groupings. Salon hanging, or hanging works in multiple stacked tiers, was common practice for most major art collections well into the 20th century. The sheer volume of art in one space inspired delight and wonder in visitors. Everyone could find something that appealed.

The physical space of the early museums were also immersive environments. Most early museums included fine details throughout from detailed floors, vaulted ceilings, and adorned exterior architecture. This attention to detail was meant to elicit specific feelings in visitors. Consider the fine exterior courtyard of the Victoria and Albert Museum, with its extraordinary mosaic tile scenes depicting artisans in action. Visitors, then and now, feel the transformative effect of spending a few minutes cosseted from the hubbub of London street, seated on the cool grass, surrounded by the awe-inspiring built environment.

Museum practices have moved away from chock-a-block installations and baroque spaces in the two hundred years since Soane’s time. American museums particularly have moved towards thinned out galleries surrounded by empty wall space. Museum professionals often suggest sparse installations allow visitors the chance to examine collections closely.

Immersion in Society

As museum practice has become more rarified, everyday life has become more immersive. Most visitors walking into museums have experienced some form of brand immersion. Most stores have a music playlist carefully chosen to project their company culture. Walking through the aisles, the shopper is unconsciously being immersed into the feel of their brand.

Explicitly immersive experiences are big business, as well. Disney makes billions annually on visitors hoping to escape into a different reality. Disney draws on decades of immersive education to deliver seamless experiences to visitors by blending built space with technology. Most visitors notice the attention to detail in the built space that makes fictional spaces manifest. However, Disney also exemplifies the hallmark of immersive experiences. Heightened experiences require playing with multiple senses. Disney subtly controls every sense in their spaces, including smell. With the mechanics hidden, the Disney visitor can be transformed into worlds that never existed.

Successful experiences do not need built space to be immersed. Video games are a $108.9 billion industry partly thanks to their highly immersive nature. Setting aside virtual reality and augmented reality for the moment, most video games have all the hallmarks of immersive experiences. Games are designed to make players feel as if they have entered the world of the game. The effect is so compelling that players often lose all sense of time as they become subsumed by the experience. People playing games feel empathy for their digital simulacrum in the game. The immersive nature of video games, like in Disney, is a carefully manufactured effect. Designers craft compelling storylines and build out complex digital spaces complete auditory effects and sounds. Players respond by feeling completely transported to the game world.

The appetite for immersive leisure has fueled intense interest in virtual reality and augmented reality. Virtual reality is a technology tool, usually accessed through a visor-headset, let’s users explore a world in 360-degrees. Augmented reality adds a virtual layer to reality, say through using a mobile app that combines input from a camera with digital content.  Virtual reality uses technology to take people to new places, while augmented reality brings new places into people’s current reality.

These technologies remain in their pioneer phase. Consumer behaviors will help the scale of success and diffusion of VR and AR. Pokemon Go is oft noted as being the first successful AR game. In the game, players capture figures who seemingly appear in their actual surroundings, as pictured in the app. The player’s wonderment and delight are predicated on the juxtapositions between their world and another reality. The New York Times, under Maureen Towey, has been producing virtual reality videos that use cell phones and Google Cardboard. Towey noted at the Detroit convening that this medium allows people to explore in 360 degrees just as they view their real world. The NYTimesVR endeavor is seen as an extension of their existing work. These short videos are framed to tell immersive stories. Through experiencing video of the Land of Salt and Fire, for example, consumers delve into a story about Ethiopia’s Afar people.

Consumer behavior outside the museum sphere affects their desires for institutions. The trend for immersive exhibitions, therefore, is as much a product of the appetite for immersive games as an interest in being able to take trendy social media photographs. Therefore, museums would be remiss to ignore immersion as a form of visitor engagement. Immersive engagement is within the museum’s historical underpinnings.

Museums and the Future of Immersion

A few museums have had real success using technology to enhance reality. The Canadian Human Rights Museum had a well-reviewed virtual reality experience helping patrons understand the lives of Guatemalan women. The Knight Foundation-funded Detroit Institute of Art’s Lumin experience uses AR to deliver interpretation about the collection. While there are differences between these experiences, an important similarity connects them—they are visually-driven technology-mediated interpretive tools. Technology allows museums to break away from textual interpretation. Engaging patrons using other senses and forms of meaning-making is an important step in diversifying audiences.

These early museum AR/VR projects, though, only hint at the future of museum immersion. For the possibilities to come to fruition, however, the field needs to transform many of its processes. Immersion requires placing visitor experience above content goals. For museums, moving towards a human-centered design can be challenging. Museums are more comfortable at broadcasting information based on their internal, curatorial goals. This status quo is antithetical to the ideal processes needed to create compelling, immersive experiences. However, if museums are willing to move towards visitor-centered experience design, their audience and reach will expand greatly. The trade-off is the long run is a worthy one. Immersive experiences offer museums a future where huge audiences are a reality.

Classism and Museums

 

Socio-economic diversity is often ignored when organizations endeavor to become more inclusive and accessible. But, ignoring socio-economic differences can have a lasting impact on the audience and staff demographics, as well as impede future audience growth.

In our purportedly merit-based society, we are taught to ignore markers of class, so we are not good about discussing them. Even if we might talk about race, more, marginally, we rarely discuss socio-economic diversity.

 

Myth of Meritocracy

Americans are raised to believe we live in a meritocracy. Most young children are told that success is within reach, usually in their educational settings and sometimes in their families. How many of us are told that anyone in America can grow up to be president?

Inculcated into the myth of meritocracy, we are often incapable of seeing the ways that class and socio-economic standing are structurally embedded within society. Merit-based advancement is our cultural Potemkin village erected by the few to trick the many. There have been times in our history where a large sector has made advancement, notably the rise of industrialization and just after World War II. In each of these periods, notable lower class people became wealthy, greenbacks being the best accouterment for a class transition. But, these socially-mobile individuals are anomalies with great marketing, not the norms. They are held up as proof of our meritocracy, rather than simply being what they are, rarities that escaped the structural challenges.

This myth of meritocracy permeates the ways that people consider poverty, class, socio-economic mobility. Firstly, merit becomes directly related to success. If earnings and success are based on merit, then low earnings and career failure are born of a lack of merit. Lower earners are seen as less deserving than high paid ones, thanks to their personal failings.

In actuality, career success is born of many factors. Class stratification gives the rich a leg up by starting higher on the success ladder: starting with greater maternal nutrition, continuing through strong primary and secondary education, and eventually in adulthood cashing in on family and school networks and connections. The race to success for the rich is a much shorter course than for the poor.  

Race and Class

Race and class are inextricably linked. African-Americans and Latinx individuals are more likely to be poor in American than Asians or whites. The myth of merit leads to the spurious assumption that certain racial groups are inherently less successful. In truth, African-Americans and Latinx individuals are often starting on the very bottom the ladder of success and climbing the rungs weighted by racism. Racism, therefore, cannot be disentangled from classism.

The connection between race and class is not accidental. Legal and political systems have made success harder for certain racial groups. Legally stipulated segregation, for example, meant that people of color spent much of the twentieth-century blocked from many forms of success. People of color often had fewer rights, like even the right to citizenship after decades of legal residency or the right to marry outside their race. These few examples scratch the surface of the ways that systematic racism contributed to our current racially-stratified class structure.

Programs aimed at improving racial disparity often ignore issues of class. This omission is often about the prejudice of the planners, who might not even realize their innate, unspoken beliefs. Class blindness has real ramifications. For example, many people might say black or Latino, but they mean a person who is poor and black. When people don’t investigate these false assumptions about class and race, the programs have inherent flaws, including scope, marketing, and reach.

 

Class  Segregation is our Norm

People live and work in socio-economically siloed spaces. Work is usually earned through academic credentialing and networking. The former requires an initial investment of money while the latter requires tapping into existing relationships, usually with others of the same background. In American, most people are educated alongside people of the same class, only to go to the same universities, get similar jobs, and explore similar leisure activities.

Work can be a point of socio-economic diversity, but this is often when an employer has people in different job functions (executive to janitorial). In those situations, the workplace might reinforce class divisions. Leisure activities are another point where classes mix, like at sporting events. However, paid leisure activities often create a separate but equal culture, with upper classes enjoying games with cocktails from the boxes while the hoi polloi chow down on dogs at the lower levels. Many of these glancing connections to different classes reinforce stereotypes. Overall, most experiences that overlap classes are too shallow or else imbued with financial baggage to result in meaningful cross-class understanding.

 

What does this mean for the workplace?

Employees engage with each other about work through the medium of spoken and unspoken communication, both of which are intensely class based. Think about Standard American English. This vast nation has numerous regional variations and accents, but flat-toned Standard American English is the most commonly accepted communication tool on most news media. That type of speaking might go over class, hypothetically, but in practice, improper pronunciation or grammar scream “lower-class” to most Americans. For the American employee raised in a lower class home, communicating with colleagues can be an act of self-policing and personality translation.

The unspoken class norms are even harder for people passing into a higher class. While Standard American is taught in every American school, the subtle class cues are taught by osmosis in the many social and cultural experiences that make up a person’s upbringing.

The American myth of meritocracy often glosses over the problem of learning new class norms.

In a famous scene in the movie Pretty Woman, sex worker Julia Roberts learns about utensils as a way to grease her way into the upper-class society that she finds herself. Being able to tell a fish fork from a salad fork would be the least of your worries in the long run. The ability to interact with the trappings of a class is like signifiers of being comfortable with that class. Learning to interact will not help you learn the foundational class norms.

In service-based fields, this complexity of class is even more challenging. People in decision-making roles are often of higher classes than the people being served. This class differential can add bias into and decrease the efficacy of the services being provided.

 

What does this mean for museums?

Museums are inextricably connected to class. Most museums are funded through donations, often large gifts from the wealthy.  Collections can also be connected to wealth. Art Museums display millennia of the material culture of the wealthy. But, science and anthropology collections often come from wealthy donors. Museums connection to wealth is not solely historical. While museums hope to expand their audiences, people still see museums as a leisure activity of the wealthy.

Without dealing with class, museums will be unable to draw wider audiences. Ignoring our prejudices and assumptions about race, therefore, can have a massive impact on our staff and patrons. Later this week, we will think more concretely about the challenges of classism in the museum and cultural sector.

Some Solutions to the White Supremacy in Museums

White supremacy is not something easily solved in our society, with millenia of problems to counteract. Yet, the scale of the problem should not be a deterrent to action. A previous post helped set up the meaning of the phrase white supremacy, but it is useful to continue to discuss the term.

Most of the actions that support inequity and the power position of white society are subtle and constant. Inaction is a form of action. For example, when museums do not discuss race, they are choosing to maintain the current order. Museums have a great opportunity to help increase equity in our society.

What types of actions are white supremacy?

This diagram can help clarify the types of issues that contribute to the culture of white supremacy. Many more actions occur daily at the lower level of the pyramid. Those actions create the foundation of society, and in many ways, form the culture upon which the more overt actions occur. While the overt actions are shocking, the covert actions are often more pernicious. Understanding these covert actions, and then need to subvert them, is the first step in transforming white supremacy. After all, as many protest signs have stated, white silence is white compliance.

What are some examples?

Communication & Signals: Sharing ideas that ignore race or imply issues about race

Style Guide:

Most institutions have a style guide that (hopefully) ensures communication consistency. These documents are the organization’s linguistic choices codified and formalized, servings as the editor’s measuring stick for all textual output. Organizations often focus on certain elements of the style guide, like brand issues, but ignore cultural competency issues.

For example, many organizations continue to use the word “slave” over “enslaved person.” Any long-time label writer can attest to the horror of wasted words. But, at organizational level, this choice places the need to maintain word count over expressing a nuanced understanding of the humanity and horror of the state of enslaving people.

Solution: Work with bias trainers to refine your style guide.

Interpretation Strategy:

Writing about collections is enormously challenging. Writers are working with limited space and unlimited possibilities; visitors are completely variable in their desires and needs. Every exhibition is mounted as a good faith effort to balance the organization’s need and the visitors. Yet, very often, exhibition planners (curators, educators, designers, etc.) do not consider cultural competency issues, like race, when working through their installations. When space is at a premium, intellectually and physically, interpretation often decides to focus on the issues that can be tackled easily. Avoiding issues like race, colonialism, etc. only serves to support the status quo.

Solution: Lead conversations during interpretation planning to discuss the ramifications of decisions.

Marketing Imagery:

Marketing photographs are usually chosen to project the ideal audience demographic, a visualization of the diversity the organization seeks. This racial diversity is often unfulfilled dream. Visitors attending the organization, expecting a certain audience demographic, find themselves amongst a different audience entirely. Using images that misrepresent the audience is dishonest. They set up expectations for the incoming visitors. If the organization is not actually prepared to make those visitors comfortable, for example if security and front-line staff have not had extensive cultural competency training, visitors will suffer.

Solutions: Be purposeful in your imagery choices, and ensure your staff is prepared for changes to your audience demographics

Gallery Sequencing:

Gallery sequencing might feel easy, following a canonical path. Art museums might choose to set things up according to the chronological march of time. Natural history museums might choose to split organic and inorganic specimens. But, every choice is imbued with cultural norms, often dripping with white supremacy. Natural history museums, for example, often hold collections of native American art, though don’t hold corresponding collections from other American cultures. The placement of these galleries can project uncomfortable and inappropriate meaning. Placing native American collections near collections about the evolution of man, for example, can imply Native Americans are less “evolved.” Certainly, curators might not believe this, however the space juxtapositions can still imply this to visitors.

Solution: This problem can be incredibly hard to solve. Gallery cannot easily be moved without massive financial ramifications. If you are in the position to do a resequencing, spend time talking through the choices, ideally with a bias consultant. However, if not, then find ways to communicate challenges with your visitors. Meet any possible misunderstanding head on with your interpretation.

Decision-making: The business of running museums can maintain the current status quo

Tokenism: Hiring practices in museums can certainly be a full blog post. But, in short, the credentialing-based hiring and unspoken requirement of unpaid internships ensures that staff positions are drawing from a small privileged group of applicants. Museums often expand their applicant expectations, say for community engagement positions. In other words, people of color are being relegated to a few jobs associated with working with people of color. Basically, these hiring practices bring a few individuals into the existing culture, all but maintaining the current order.

Solution: Again, this could be the subject of a blog post. But, internally, the issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and access need to be considered thoroughly and thoughtfully. Hiring in staff without internal change only exacerbates the problem.

Community Engagement: Engagement programs can be incredibly transformative for organizations, but only if they allow for the transformation. When such programs are siloed, their impact on the organization is localized. In other words, community engagement often supports the status quo, creating a culture of special interest (segregated) programming that runs in parallel with the general programming. For community engagement to truly transform white supremacy in an organization, it has to become central to all work and the job of everyone.

Solution: Leadership needs to make transforming the audience everyone’s job, then they need to increase internal capacity across the board to do so.


 

Thanks to Hrag of Hyperallergenic on his post about Newark Museum’s labels that got me thinking about this topic. The Newark Museum is obviously doing something right, as they have made the decision to move away from anonymous.

Museums & White Supremacy

White supremacy is a phrase that can startle people. For many people, the phrase connotes men in white sheets marching under cover of night fighting anonymously for a minority vision of our society. These white extremists certainly fall within the definition of white supremacy, but they are not the defining aspect of the concept.

What is white supremacy?

White supremacy is a system that maintains the structure with the white culture at the top of society. For many people, this actuality of white supremacy is challenging. There is the cognitive dissonance between their belief that white supremacy is a minority opinion counter to our pluralistic society. Being confronted with the idea that wholly contradicts their original opinion can be jarring. But, being forced to see themselves mentally aligned with such vilified members of our society can seem repugnant and repellent. Most members of our society attempt to perform “anti-racism,” i.e., they act in ways that appear inclusive. So, to learn that their actions and the society they live in is in line with the KKK, well, that can feel either earth-shaking or completely false. Either way, without coming to terms with the reality of white supremacy, people cannot work toward racial equity.

Our cultural structures are so imbued with white supremacy as to have become nearly invisible. For example, the English language has become the norm globally. Even nations that had never succumbed to the English empire, advertisements run taglines for products in English. Coca-Cola anyone? American capitalism is equally pervasive. I would be hard-pressed to imagine a single adult in the world who is without some knowledge of an American product, like a brand, actor, or idea. Western society has become our global given.

What do these economic and cultural givens have to do with white supremacy?

First, English is a language, perhaps the language, of white colonialism, the greatest propagator of white supremacy our society has ever known. Even as the economy of colonialism has largely waned, the language maintains many of those ties. Many smaller languages have given way to the power of English, the language of commerce and success. But, with a new language comes a new idea. The English language serves to support the dispersal of cultural norms as well. Any bilingual person knows that translation is an approximation, at best. And, English has forced many cultural ideas into other societies, leaving much of the pre-English ideas lost in translation.

Economics also has its part in white supremacy. The means of production since the Industrial Revolution has been held by the few, and those few have been white. Even as society has slowly transformed with more non-white people gaining ground economically, largely the system has been constructed to maintain this order. This economic reality can be incredibly jarring for people. Often, the iconic poor white miner is levied as a rhetorical brick against this reading of white supremacy. After all, aren’t there black people with Harvard degrees eating caviar while this poor white miner remains jobless in Appalachia? Of course, both people described certainly exist. But, those individuals do nothing to undo the economics of white supremacy, and in fact, they both serve to support the theory. An Ivy-league educated American black person remains a minority.

Given that most black Americans can trace their history in this nation back farther the many White Americans, the lower rates of matriculation of black Americans at Ivy League institutions should be shocking. Think about this. Black people have been in American for hundreds of years, speaking this language, living in this culture, and yet, someone whose grandparents spoke no English has more likelihood, statistically, of matriculating to an Ivy League school. So, what’s the variable? Race. We live in a society where if you are white, you are unmarked. Therefore, you can live within the scrutiny of color. Now, you might be given a silver spoon and the corner office, but white people are not hamstrung by their race. So, black American is succeeding despite the mark of their skin color, and often as one of very few to follow that path. In the story of the black Harvard grad, there are two hallmarks of white supremacy. The road of being a solo person of color in a competitive field is exhausting and intense. Career and academic isolationism, due to few people of color reaching high levels, maintain the current order. But, even more telling, the black Harvard grad is often seen as a product of affirmative action, as if their merit was not equal to white students. The underlying belief is that the playing field was not equal. Certainly, the playing field was not equal. White people have the ability to move within the academic and economic society without the baggage of race. That mobility is an enormous boon, and likely one of the greatest mechanisms that propagate white supremacy.

This mobility is also underlying the issues of the white miner. That people would see a poor white person as proof that white supremacy exists is the ultimate marker of white supremacy. The argument is that white supremacy can’t exist if there are white people who are poor. The corollary to that argument would be that all white people must be above all people of color. In other words, that argument is complete within the norms of white supremacy, where whiteness is an essential state of being. If whiteness was the issue there, the poor miner could be any color, and the argument would be about the shrinking periphery in our society. But, instead, his poverty is seen as surprising because he is white, i.e., of the privileged state in our society.

What do this poor miner and black Harvard grad have to do with museums?

Whiteness is inextricably linked to the work of museums. Museums are part of the Western (white) society. Often collections are born of the very colonial state that propagated white supremacy. Art museums certainly hold collections born of colonialism, such as Asian and African collections. But, other museums also profited from colonialism. Fossils from all around the world call Western nations home, for example. Even the very idea of collecting and cataloging is a Western one. Denying this history does not negate it, but instead allows this history to subvert any changes we attempt to put in place. After all, we know that the monster under the bed has more power when unseen and threatening; once faced, its hold dissipates quickly.

However, language and translation might be some of the most useful elements of white supremacy that permeates museums. Museums attempt to share ideas with patrons to help them connect to collections (and share collections to connect patrons to ideas). In other words, museums are basically communicators. This places museums in a power position. They have the power to chose what is communicated and how. Often, museums communicate in ways that support the current order, and therefore they support white supremacy.

Museum staff remains largely white, so the nuance of language and the bigger cultural issues of white supremacy often feel academic, which gets us back to our miner and Harvard grad. The class is certainly an issue in museums, but generally, many more white people of lower classes have been able to pass into the upper levels of museum administration than people of color. Diversity and inclusion efforts have brought in more people of color, but the numbers are low. People of color, therefore, become isolated and often disenchanted.

So, what can museums do?

There are many ways, small and large, that museums can deal with white supremacy in their work. First, though, museum professionals need to face up to the fact that white supremacy is a lot more than guys in sheets and that they are part of the problem. Museum professionals need to think about what white supremacy means within society and within their work. Without coming to terms with the fact that white supremacy is a powerful state that has suffused our society, they have no hope of moving towards a racially equitable state.

On Thursday, we will have some concrete examples of white supremacy in museum work.

The Game is Up: Game Design as Part of the Interpreter’s Tool Kit

Serious Games in Virginia is this week. Here is the gist of the ideas that I shared.

Why Games?

Games are about experience, interaction, and engagement with ideas while fueled by competition, camaraderie, and humor. Education has tried to capitalize on these elements in games as the ultimate form of constructivist learning.  No other form of content engages people quite like games.

Think of all the ideas absorbed while fighting to win. (Boardwalk is low rent; Carcassonne is one seriously walled town; the Oregon Trail was no joke.) Beyond the facts gleaned, games drop players into worlds where learning the systems and rules was imperative for victory. In a well-designed game, the player’s joy and desire propel them; learning is, therefore, self-fueled and addictive.

So Educational Games are a no-brainer?

What teacher, content-writer, interpretation professional, etc. don’t want people to be addicted to their ideas? But, the challenge is that games need to have an inherent authenticity that can be crushed by contrivances. Putting too many constraints and requirements during game design is a sure way to kill the game. This problem is at the heart of the challenges many people have with the term “edutainment.”  Detractors point out that games are inherently educational, after all as they teach systems and interactions; edutainment is a way of hobbling good games with excessive content.

Truthfully, I am on the fence about edutainment. I like the idea of games as a way to get people into ideas in an entertaining way. My issue with edutainment and any other content-based game is about expectations and design. Games can’t do everything for everyone. Games are darn-hard to design and even harder to perfect. Games that feel easy to play are hard to design. Content-providers and educators must manage their expectations for the game. So, what’s the way to get the best content-based game? Scale back content expectations, increase the time for design, and test the heck out of the game.

What are the decisions you make to create game-based interpretation? How do you think about the audience?

First, when planning a game figure out who is playing this game and what their actual behaviors are. But, thinking about the audience requires nuanced considerations. All people play games sometimes but not all people want to play games all the time. In other words, games seem universal, but they aren’t. Often, content-providers are simplistic in considering who wants games.

Children seem like an obvious audience for game-based interpretation. Sure, games often work for kids, but children often want to play games to exclusion of everything else. Ever had to play Candyland until you consider gumdrop-icide? A family exhibition that needs fast thru-put might not be the best option.

Adult audiences have not lost all joy in life; they are not inherently-game averse. But, some types of games will turn off some adults. Role-playing games draw some adults for almost the same reason that they turn off other adults. LARP lovers want to be immersed, taking pride and joy from all the nuances of language and dress required to get into it. LARP-averse folks do not want to get into it—at all. (And, yes, I know that LARP love isn’t just a binary pro or con, but more of a spectrum.)

Practically speaking, game design is expensive in terms of time and energy. The most logical conclusion might, therefore, be to plunk money into a game that works okay for most audiences. But, designing games for slightly specialized audience slices can be easier and more successful. A good approach is to pick a sizeable chunk of the overall audience, say the largest sector of an exhibition audience, and plan for them.

After honing in on your audience, you need to focus on time, space, and depth. How long will people spend, at a minimum, to play one round? Time considerations should actually be considered before content ideas. If you only slot in 1-2 minutes, you cannot expect players to learn about all the nuances of the 100 Years War. Alternately, if you are creating a game that makes people WANT to learn all the nuances of the 100 Years War, you need to accommodate longer gameplay. Therefore, content is a function of time and space. Have a game where players can sit and dig in? You can go a little deeper with content. Only have space and time for a quickie? Hold the content tight and concise.

Finally, make sure experience goals are more important than content outcomes. In other words, make sure players enjoy engaging with the ideas. Think of that saying that Coco Channel said about taking one thing off before you leave. Scale down your content goals at least once before designing your game, and then be okay with having to scale back again after playtesting starts. It is better for players to really understand a few ideas while playing a fabulous game than being turned off by a whole host of ideas due to a terrible game.

Who should design a game?

Game design is a specialized skill, in certain ways, but also a learned skill. A full-time game designer has years of experience to draw upon. A museum profession or educator has years of knowledge and teaching to draw upon. In my previous museum work, I lead a team that developed games. Creating games bonded the teams and surfaced the complementary skills amongst the staff. Yet, we were often working long, un-competed hours to make our games. We were often unsupported by our institution.

So, the question about who should design a game is a complicated one. Now, as a consultant, with the pleasure of distance, I think game design can be exquisite torture for museum professionals—worth doing for the joy but torturously hard-work. Pairing institutional content people with game design people allows the museum/education people to have the joy of creating the game without the exhaustion of working through design and playtesting without support.

What makes a game successful?

I live in a mixed house-household—Scrabble-haters and Scrabble-lovers. While true, I mention this useful fact because even the most successful games will not hit 100 percent of players. So, firstly, success cannot be measured by the percentage of people who play. Instead, focus on the quality of experience for the people who did engage with the game. Did they enjoy the game? Would they play again? Would they tell friends about the game?

After focusing on enjoyment, then focus on content outcomes. This will be hard for educators and museum professionals, as they are generally focused on sharing information. But think of it this way. If your players were miserable but understood your content goals, you failed and made people unhappy. If your players had fun but didn’t understand your content, you failed but at least your visitors were happy. The best game, of course, helps people engage with content joyfully. And, that is totally possible, as long as you are completely aware that content success only happens when a player experience is at the fore of all decisions.

Visitor-Centered means Object-Centered

 

Over the last few years, there have been some heated debates behind the scenes of museum education offices about the ways that visitors should be engaged. Many directors have changed the department moniker from education to learning or interpretation. This change could be seen as a transformation from older methodologies to more sophisticated forms of engagement. (I have my reservations, though that is for another time).

Underlying these changes are some incredibly important cultural transformations. While in the dawn of museums experts spoke at visitors who received ideas, now visitors expect a responsive connection. Museums, like all service fields, have started to develop materials for the visitor, rather than just hoping the visitor likes the materials that are being developed. This move towards visitor-centered museums has been met with some uncertainty.

The most common complaint, often launched by directors or curators, is that museums shouldn’t “dumb it down” as they will lose their core audience. This criticism has some validity. Museums have a core audience of donors and scholars who expect a certain level of language. However, there are some holes in the reasoning that dumbing things down is bad. Firstly, erudite language express simplistic ideas and complexity can be shown simply. Language is often used in museums to imply sophistication and divide people by reading level. This type of exclusionary language occurs as interpretation writers and curators are not able to step outside their own written norms. Their expertise and reading experience makes them poor judges of what is broadly understood. A very smart, Ph.D physicist might not understand un”dumbed down” labels on Tibetan esoteric iconography.  Another problem is that “dumbing it down” implies that starting at that intro level makes you dumb. Intelligence has nothing to do with information retention, and conflating the two is a dumb move. Finally, the core audience is often seen differently by various aspects of the museum. Curators often see their peers or their donors as the end-user of labels; these are the people they engage with most commonly. Educators and interpreters often imagine a generalist as the most common audience for the labels; these are the people they engage most often. Curators, educators, and interpreters are all right. Museums often have multiple core audiences.

To return to the graphic, the solution to the challenges of ensuring visitor-centered interpretation can be to go back to the object. Rather than placing the museum and the object on one side of a see-saw, think of the object as being in the center (the fulcrum). The ideal balance for any object is an interpretation plan that takes into account the museum’s needs and the visitor’s desire. The object is what keeps everything in balance.

So many arguments over interpretation focus on the level of the language or the tone of the program–they are ancillary to the object. Instead, try to start with the object–what is the central ideas that people should know and want to know about the object? Then think about the ways you will communicate these issues. Remember you have many tools. Some will be ideal for the most erudite and some will be ideal for the least (And, remember this isn’t dumbing down but instead introducing people.)

 

Guiding Questions to Think about Bias in Museums (by functional area)

At AAM 2018, there was a wonderful panel led by Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko about Decolonization. While all the speakers were wonderful, I was particularly struck by Jaclyn Roessel’s remarks about indigenizing museums as an act of transforming the current power structure. Overall, the conversation underscored the importance of systematic and cataclysmic change in transforming the colonialism inherent in museums. This process is one that requires work and the ceding of power to people outside the museum world. Cinnamon et al stressed the importance of collective action and community-organized change.

Walking out of that conversation, I was struck at how much time and energy is required of community groups when they help museums transform. How can museums ensure that they are meeting this sacrifice in good faith? Museum teams need to prepare themselves for tough conversations.

The first step is to find ways to subvert the natural human inclination towards defensiveness. Criticism of any kind can feel like an attack. But, in a society where race is a taboo topic, criticism can become debilitating. Learning to tamp down defensiveness, therefore, can be an incredibly important means of laying a foundation for growth. (Incidentally, Beyond Defensiveness, our book, and our online course can be useful tools to help on the path to dealing with bias).

Once you are personally positioned to be self-critical about bias, you need to examine your work. While each field has a slightly different manifestation of bias, overall, investigating inherent challenges requires thinking about who is missing and why. Making ideas explicit requires seeing what you have been missing, potentially for your whole career. Think of it as an intellectual optical illusion; once seen cannot be forgotten.

An Example

Take this example. Recently, New York writer Jerry Saltz posted a tweet about women artists.

The sentiment was important, as was the fact that it was said by an influencer.  Yet, the tweet had an important omission. The tweet never called out the reason that women were not taken seriously as artists. While this could be seen as simply an issue of “elegant” verbal framing, this was also a way that language hides the actual instigators of inequity.  Exposing such omissions are important as bias cannot be dealt with if it remains invisible.

How do you see the unseen?

The pernicious effects of colonialism and bias thrive on silence and denial. People need to be willing to look at every process with a critical eye. Every element of work needs to be investigated. Choice points need to be considered. Here is a great moment where data and visualizations can help draw conclusions. Data can help make concrete that which is hidden. For example, what percentage of works in an audiotour are of male artists or artists of color? What percentage of artworks have long-form labels? What is the demographic make-up of the audience? What is the demographic make-up of the photographs in the marketing? (Above is a graphic to offer some questions by functional area.)

Doing this type of hard work internally is essential before joining forces with community partners. Those partners have put themselves out to join you on your journey. Don’t they deserve a travel partners who is strong enough to make it down this long road?

Recognizing Bias in Interpretation and Content

 

Being culturally situated is a state nothing can avoid, collection objects included.  Collection objects, even natural history specimens, are mediated by creators, curators, educators, amongst others. A dinosaur bone is excavated by a person, identified by a person, and reclassified by a person. The human existence, in other words, flavors the essence of every collection object.

The first step in recognizing bias is to accept that all aspects of museum work have inherent biases. There are many clear points of bias (above). Ignoring bias does not make these issues disappear; in fact, avoidance usually exacerbates and multiplies bias. Acquisitions are the often the result of inherent in-group bias when the academic interests nominate certain white, male artists as exemplary skewing the whole collection/ cannon. Databases seem cut and dry but are rife with potential biases.  For each category that has controlled vocabulary, a decision has been made. Databases that articulate male and female as the only choices for gender are excluding other genders. Interpretation is the front-facing function that needs to think particularly critically about bias.

 

 

Interpretation is like the end of the long line from the origin of the object to the visitor.  Interpretation is also the point where bias is particularly obvious. Content creation, ideally, starts with finding bridges between objects and visitors. There are many tools to form this bridge, from social media to catalog essays.  While each tool has a different reach and needs a different approach, in each instance the content creator chooses facets about the collection object to foreground. This choice-point is when many stories are edited out. When making this choice, however, thought is rarely given about who is being edited out and why.

How can bias be improved?

  1. Understand that all aspects of museum work have bias. Without accepting and understanding this, museum staff cannot address bias.
  2. In each area, reconsider conventional wisdom, long-held beliefs, and givens. Ask yourself “why” processes exists as they do.
  3. Seek help from others. Jaclyn Roessel gave a wonderful talk about her work about Indigenization of interpretation and process at #AAM2018, and this is a great example of how changing the balance of power can ameliorate biased systems.
  4. Invest time, energy, and trust. Museums are colonial institutions. Lip-service or surface bias treatment will not reform the foundations into equitable institutions. People need to go all in to make true change.

#AAM2018 Recap: Language, Collaboration, and Action

 

The Annual American Alliance Conference 2018 was hosted in toasty Phoenix. Many participants mentioned that this conference felt like a year to consider the basics. Rather than big bang projects, many presentations seemed to focus on maintenance, improvement, and thoughtfulness. As part of this introspection, many presentations put a fine focus on understanding the structures and processes of the museum world. Here is a roundup of some the biggest issues

Language: Communication between people has an inherent bias. Verbal communication often holds a bias towards those in power. For example, until very recently, many occupations were described in gendered terms (fireman, postman, councilman). Focusing on words might feel insignificant in the grand scheme of improving equity and inclusion. However, words are the basic building blocks of improving the socio-cultural state. Currently, language is built on broken blocks. Being thoughtful in the ways that you use language, avoiding biased language, for example, is like excavating and rebuilding our faulty communication tools.

Decolonialism/ Equity/ Inclusion:  Just as language might be the building blocks of inequity, colonialism is the architect of the inequity in society. The society we live in is a product of white Europeans expanding and conquering much of the planet, laying waste to the people and cultures resident there. This expansion/ decimation might have begun centuries ago, but the ramifications remain present today. Museum collections are particularly tangible artifacts of the colonial state. In order to truly embrace equity and inclusion, museums need to face and address the colonial nature of their work and collections, in a holistic and all-encompassing manner.

Collaboration/ Partnership: Museums are part of an ecosystem of organizations and institutions, large and small. Despite the breadth of possible collaborators, museums often act unilaterally in their planning and implementation of programs and exhibitions. Museums are ill-at-ease with ceding power, the central crux of good collaboration. Instead, museums often create collaborations in name only, which are basically perfunctory check-ins. With careful planning and dedicated time, museums can implement collaborations that will have positive lasting effects on their communities and their work. This type of collaboration, however, requires earnestness, truthfulness, transparency, and follow-through.

Risk: Risk-taking can be at the heart of a good collaboration. Museums are change-averse and yet always in the throes of change. This state means that staff needs to handle inadvertent change consistently, while not being able to take calculated risks (planned change). Fear of change is often centered around a few of power changes/ loss of power.  Conversely, ceding power is a learned skill not unlike risk-taking. Taking small risks, and reaping the benefits, can increase institutional aptitude for risk-taking.

Space: Improving anything is hard. It takes time, energy, money, and dedication. Ameliorating the state of museums can feel particularly draining, as we are a physically disparate field. (Rather than a physician with scores of peers in your region, museum workers often find their peers around the country/ world). As a result, people can feel isolated. Exhausted and isolated people cannot effectively make change. Museum workers must take care of themselves if they want to continue their impact on the field and their visitors. Self-care can take many forms, but in essence, means that you take some time to focus on yourself.