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.



Emotions and Customer Experience

Customer/ Visitor Experience basically encompasses connection your visitor has with your organization from the signs on the street to the moments in the galleries. CX overarches both onsite and offsite; physical and digital. Experience is, therefore, a huge concept. As with all large concepts, considering constituent aspects.


The concrete elements that express the experience to customers/ visitors are a good place to start. These elements are where the ideas of the experience come to fruition, where theory becomes action. Here are some examples:

  • Discovery:
    • Word of Mouth
    • Social Media
    • Online
  • Research:
    • Social Media
    • Online
    • Front of Line Staff
  • Initiation:
    • Parking
    • Entrance
    • Front of Line Staff
    • Point of Sale
  • Consumption:
    • Galleries
    • Labels
    • Educators
    • Interactives
  • Review:
    • Word of Mouth
    • Social Media
    • Online


The touchpoints should spark reactions in visitors. These reactions aren’t just procedural. For example, a common museum touchpoint is a map that should help people get to places, at a bare minimum. But, the map should also communicate welcome and ease. People should feel comfortable.

Museums often focus on the procedural element to the touchpoints and therefore miss the mark with reactions. An effort needs to be placed on understanding that touchpoints evoke attitudinal (not just behavioral) reactions. Without careful consideration, those touchpoints will strike the wrong chord.


Thinking big picture is a good improve the alignment of the touchpoints and the reactions. Start with the action you hope to evoke. So, for the map, for example, you are communicating welcome. You want people to feel ready and able. Certainly, you want them to get to each of the galleries. They won’t even want to get to your collection if they feel overwhelmed or turned off from the map.

The Cost of Museum Work

Consider these scenarios:

For the Museum: Most cities have few museums. Jobs often have low turn over. With the dearth of jobs, professionals don’t leave museum jobs lightly. The manager, confronted with an open position, sees the chance to (finally) make real change. They are looking across the field for the BEST person. The manager has their pick nationally. Rather than focus on investing in and promoting within, the manager can look for a new person.

For the Job Seeker: The job seeker, on the other hand, knows that they will need to seek nationally because the options are small in your own town. You will likely need to leave home if you want to get a higher position.  The chance of internal promotion is low. Moving is a requirement for promotion.

Being a Museum Professional

Museum professionals invest huge amounts of money into their education. Unlike other professional fields, only a fraction of museum professionals will earn high-level salaries.  Going into the field is a huge gamble.

  • Success is hard to quantify: People go in and work hard. But, hard work is not enough to ensure success. In some fields, hard work is easily connected to success. Accountants who can churn out tax returns like machines are seen as more successful.
  • Success is subjective: Museums want to be able to bring in more visitors for less money while being the most academically rigorous (and ideally garnering an article in the Times), basically the Holy Grail. The path to this endpoint, however, is complicated, confusing, and subjective. Despite the many meetings where a colleague suggests they have the “right” answer to accomplish the grail, there is no single path to improving museums. There are good answers, better answers, and terrible answers–but there are no perfect answers. Museum professionals often feel like they are being measured against this idea of perfection that doesn’t exist.
  • Success doesn’t mean profit: Museum professionals might impact millions of visitors over their lifetime. Their pay for this service is usually good vibes, and potentially professional street cred, but rarely money.
  • Success often means placing the field ahead of family: In order to move into a higher pay grade, most professionals need to move. There are financial costs in moving, often not included in the hiring package. While moving can increase your earning potential, you need to have the stability financially to do that. (See graphic). There are many hidden “costs” to moving. You need to uproot your family. You need to be willing to live away from your family. You have to be willing and able to travel to see family.

The Effect on the Field

The Museum Hiring Culture:

  • Develops a Split with Local Audiences: People who move to work can either grow bonds with their or feel disconnected/superior to their new community. Many museum professionals remain siloed in their work, surrounded by transplants such as themselves. Therefore, they might find themselves supported by people who are not connected to the community. Their work can be affected by an innate superiority about the local community.  This individual attitude becomes infused into the work the museum produces.
  • Promotes bad management: Museums are small networks, so a truly terrible person will never be able to escape their mistakes. But, average bad managers and self-obsessed jerks profit from a culture that eschews internal promotion. In the first couple years of work, most professionals are given some latitude for their failures. About three years in, their colleagues start to judge them. This is the point at which they can improve or leave. Instead of promoting a culture of self-improvement, the hiring culture effectively promotes people leaving (for more money) before improving.
  • Depletes the Field: People might not be willing to move for promotions, and live in small markets, without the availability of local options. People might feel exhausted by the workload requirements. People might not be able to afford to do museum work, as the remuneration is often not a living wage.
  • Prevents Diversity:
    • Museum professionals without families are therefore more likely to be willing to move for a job (though their transitions are not without the stresses of developing new roots.)  Managers then are often people without local roots and without children. They don’t understand the personal obligations of staff, demanding long evening and weekend hours. Therefore, the field unfairly supports those who are willing to put their job ahead of their family. (Remember diversity is not about race, and professionals with families is a form of diversity).
    • The cost of moving means that people who have a greater buffer from families are more likely willing to move. The net result is that executive positions are more likely filled with those from higher economic classes.

Making Change that Matters: Moving Beyond “Diversity” Projects Towards Systemic Change


Diversity, Inclusion and Equity can be implemented in a workplace in different ways.

Additive: One is additive, by adding new people and programs in the workplace. In this way, the organization hopes to infuse their existing world with new voices, as like adding spice to a bland meal. This approach has strengths, in that there is more variety being adding to the workplace. But, it puts an unnecessary onus on the marginalized people and programs being added to the institution to “fix” systemic problems.

Subtractive: Many organizations perceive a subtractive approach is more efficacious. For example, when positions come open, they purposeful hire a marginalized person (perhaps also proudly toutly their accomplishment). Unlike the additive method, this approach works under the operating auspices of the organization, i.e. not adding new positions or projects that could be cut eventually. Yet, this approach effectively creates some of the same problems as the additive approach. The marginalized person is still being asked to be the actor of transformation.

Systemic: Diversity and equity initiatives are basically about transforming culture. This requires understanding the many ways that the culture supports inequity and prejudice. Many of these issues are hiding in plain sight, interwoven into all the practices of the institution. Every element of the work of the institution could be imbued with problems. For diversity and inclusion initiatives to truly take hold, the institution needs to examine their practices. Here is where a consultant, or outside voice, can be essential. Just as people are often blind to their own faults, organizations often ignore the largest roadblocks to true diversity.

Systemic change, however, requires a commitment to being honest, thoughtful, and responsive. Unlike the additive and subtractive ways to implement diversity, systemic change is a process-based towards transformation. Processes take time and coordination between people, and ideally, non-hierarchical knowledge-sharing.  Seen broadly, systemic change requires a number of steps:

  1. Grow your team’s ideas and knowledge-base. Organizations, whatever the field, are often siloed knowledge networks. Fields bring people with similar training together, and then they generally partake in similar types of professional development. Change is about fostering difference. So, the staff needs to be able to understand and embrace difference.
  2. Examine the practices of the organization and attempt to understand facets that support or mask bias. This process will be slow and iterative.
  3. Rework those elements in a collaborative manner. This type of change needs to blend many (diverse) voices. They need to be diverse in all sort of ways (age, gender, education) in order to create a process that can handle diverse challenges.
  4. Iterate your new processes. Try out new processes, and then circle back with your teams to see how to improve them. Make sure everyone understands that processes need to grow and adapt so that they are willing to share feedback.



Reframing Diversity and Inclusion

Diversity and inclusion are now common words in organizational management. Before considering the actual practices, it might be useful to consider the meaning of each of the words.

: Diversity means variations. Genetic diversity, for example, in the human population creates a huge range of hair colors.

Sadly, diversity has become a coded word. Many people feel uncomfortable or defensive about talking about marginalized people. They use the phrase diversity to mean “adding X marginalized person or project.” When they say we need to increase diversity, they might mean that they need to add more people of color. In this way, many people are using diversity incorrectly. They don’t mean diversity in the sense of broad variation. Instead, they are unable to think beyond their narrow definitions of diversity. They see diversity too simply, this person for that person. But, diversity, actually means more of all kinds of people.

Inclusion is another word that is misused. Inclusion is much bigger than the word implies. On its surface, inclusion can seem simple. Including friends into your home can just be about giving them a call. But, in the organizational sense, you are not working with friends. You are working in a stratrified society. Inclusion are the transformational practices set forth to be able to make a diverse group of people feel included.

Community is another coded word that comes into play with diversity and inclusion initiatives. Community is a challenging word in a different way than diversity and inclusion. Community can be used differently by different people depending on where they stand in society. For example, a marginalized person might be using the term to mean their in-group of marginalized people. They are using the word to denote their shared culture, in other words, their community. However, when an organization uses that word, community should not be used to mask an inherent discomfort with naming a specific marginalized community. For example, many organizations have “community engagement” endeavors. These endeavors are aimed at low-wealth, minority patrons. However, rather than directly stating these points, the organization hides behind the term “community.”

This type of linguistic simplification and obfuscation can seem innocuous. However, they are often like canaries, signaling a work culture that is dangerously unable to truly implement diversity and inclusion work.  On Thursday, we will talk about the ways to do diversity and inclusion work well.

A Museum Professional’s Oath for Better Visitor Interactions


Museums serve visitors, both on-site and off. Connecting with others is a grave responsibility, a relationship that can change people and organizations. Funders love engagement, like education and community engagement. Museums seek funding for programs that connect them to others, often raising millions for operating support. This work is essential, basically making the museums’ missions manifest. But, there are times when museums need to make good choices.

In my career, I have learned the hard way that funding and allocations are tinged with ethical considerations. For example, the museum professional is asking for support to staff a project that will help thousands of people for a certain term. As an organization, you are putting off making a decision. After the term, you will need to decide how Peter will be robbed to keep Paul working. Non-profits, like museums, can feel like a daily shell game. And, instead of playing for nickels, you are playing for people’s minds. Museum work is not frivolous–it is for the benefit of every person who connects with the institution.

These millions of people deserve to know that they are being treated in the most ethical manner.  Museums often preference pragmatism to stark ethics. You make choices about allocations, pushing pennies to one project to support a team-member effectively robbing another audience. You hope to do it right, but sometimes the fog obscures the true north.

But, there is a simple goal, a cardinal direction of museum work. That our institutions should place collections, knowledge, and people in the forefront of their concerns. Everything we do needs to support these three goals equally. We as institutions have collections and knowledge down, but the visitors are often given short-shrift.  But, people deserve some essential ethical considerations. Just as doctors take an  to cause no harm, museum professionals have an ethical challenge to center their visitors:

Oath of Ethics in Museum W0rk

As a museum professional, I hereby promise that:

1.I will do no harm to the people we are hoping to serve.

2.I will not make assumptions about our patrons. We will ask them.

3.I will not just drop people when grant periods end.

4.I will treat all patrons like people.

5.I will not assume skin color defines interests, actions, or motivations.

6.I will not assume skin color connects people.

7.I will respect everyone, including ourselves. We will act in ways that feel respectful.

8.I will speak kindly, thoughtfully, and considerately. And, I will learn how to speak this way.

9.I will focus on people.



How do you do Community Engagement

Community Engagement is a commitment. Often organizations need to go through stages to improve their engagement with patrons. At the lowest level of engagement, organizations want to include people in their existing programs without changes. At the highest level of engagement, the organization is willing to make changes and as a result their community changes. A small example of a coevolution might be when procedural changes, like waiving rental fees, are put in place to run a community-originated program.

Most organization’s work in community engagement between “consult” and “collaborate.” Each subsequent level of engagement requires increasing amounts of trust, truth, and time.

Organizations need to give a little and learn a lot in order to do community engagement well. In non-profit, particularly museums, while the stakes feel high, the outside world rarely understand our norms. Many of the concessions to connect to the community and increase involvement do not change us at the core. They require listening and improving; they do not require changing who we are.

Community engagement is a good relationship, like a long marriage/ partnership when you lose track of the small changes each partner has made.  But, like all relationships, engagement needs to start with an honest, truthful commitment. Then, museums need to follow through.  (Museums have more need for this relationship, so they must model follow through. If they do, communities eventually will.) If museums do, they can expand and improve your work, eventually finding that the museum and the community have both been inextricably improved by this faithful communion.