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.

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.

What is Community Engagement?

Capital, Collections, Cultural Capital and Infrastructure are what museums can offer.
Facets of Community Engagement

Community Engagement is one of those terms that is tossed around in museums but can become encrusted with coded meaning. Often museums use the word community engagement to mean bringing in low-income people, with “community” being a coded term for underprivileged people. Sometimes community engagement might be used as the term for bringing in new audiences. Or, in an ideal situation, community engagement is a term for connecting people to your organization.

Not too long ago, I was thinking about the possible types of experiences that could be part of community engagement (see my handwritten notes above)  Often organizations focus on how they can bring people in their doors, usually with programs.

Yet, a rounded community engagement program should strategically consider the myriad facets of interaction. Museums have collections as well as space, money, soft power.  People’s draw to the museum might not be the collection, at least at first. This is a controversial thought, I realize.  Community engagement, however, needs to be about inviting people into the museum community rather than demanding people use the museum the “right way”.

A huge portion of community engagement should be about sharing. Museums have many resources they can share beyond their programs. Also, there are times when what they have to offer is space, both physical and emotional.  A well-rounded community engagement portfolio should balance multiple elements of the facets of community engagement, ideally developed iteratively and collaboratively with patrons.

Looking into the Well-Reported Statistic about Museums, Starbucks & McDonalds (Data)

A well-reported statistic compares the number of museums to Starbucks and McDonalds. There are 1.5 times more museums in the country than the caffeine and fries purveyors. A friend Michelle Epps got me thinking about what this statistic. (You might know Michelle from her tireless work on the Emerging Museum Professional network).

In looking at the numbers, Michelle is right. While statistics about the sheer numbers of museums seem positive, they mask some real challenges. Museums can easily grow their reach. They have the physical space to interact with more people and the cultural capital to improve our society. But, they also don’t have the staffing capacity across the board. The majority of American museums have 3 or fewer full-time staff. Most, if not all, museums buoy their organizational capacity with volunteers. This staffing challenge is hugely detrimental to the field. Volunteers are wonderful, and I myself love volunteering with local organizations. But, they also effectively subsidize work at these institutions. Starbucks, in the opposite, is well-known for its commitment to giving numerous benefits to retain staff.

Starbucks and McDonalds (combined) are serving 70 times more people than museums.  These scores of patrons are also always interacting with paid staff when they are at those establishments. As Michelle pointed out to me, people don’t get a Master’s degree to volunteer at Starbucks. Instead, they work at Starbucks to be able to afford to volunteer at a museum.

 

Sources and Numbers:

Starbucks: 453600000 people served, 8,222 stores, and 238,000  staff (does not staff if these numbers are full-time staff only)
McDonalds:1266960000 people served, 14140 stores, and 375000 staff (does not staff if these numbers are full-time staff only)
Museums: 85000000 people served, 35000 museums, and 725000 employees

Fostering Empathy by Acknowledging Credit

 

Art Museum Teaching recently posted an article about empathy in the workplace. As always, Mike Murawski’s post was thoughtful and thorough. In reflecting on the article, I wanted to think further about the situations when empathy is lacking in the workplace.

What is Empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand other’s feelings and act accordingly.  People need to appreciate or perceive emotions and reactions in order to act in an empathetic manner. Emotions are inextricably linked to all human endeavors, including work. In the workplace, emotions are often connected to outcomes. People often feel good when they have successes and badly when they have failures. Emotions also appear in the workplace when co-workers interact. Good connections build positive emotions. Competition can foster negative emotions or positive ones.

In most workplace situations, employees call on their empathy-skills throughout the day:

  • When you walk by a person who had dropped a stack of paper, you have the choice on if you should help. Empathy is one of the reasons that you might stop to help.
  • When you decide to give someone who is uncharacteristically snappy a pass, you are calling on your empathy.
  • When you don’t get snarky about someone’s typo, you are calling on empathy.

True, in each of the above situations, empathy blends into kindness and propriety. But, empathy is aptitude that connects to many other workplace skills. An empathetic individual is a better team member, as well as a better manager.

What are signs that a workplace lacks empathy?

So if empathy is so wonderful in the workplace, why is it often lacking? Well, the polar opposite of empathy might be selfishness/ or self-centered behavior.  These self-serving behaviors can be purposeful or accidental, but both are symptomatic of a lack of empathy and consideration of other people’s emotions. The workplace can be about balancing your personal desires and those of the overall organization. That said, even the most empathetic person seeks some sort of personal benefit from work.

We all have some desire for personal benefits. In most of the workplace, cash-money is the utmost benefit of work. In non-profit, only a small sliver of the workforce can say that they are being paid a living wage or a salary worth crowing about.  In this type of environment, credit can be a form of emotional remuneration. This is a challenging equation, however. Credit is ephemeral, at best, and easy to subvert.  Museums and academic institutions are credential-based cultures. Lab directors, curators, deputy directors are often given credit for the work of their juniors. These subordinates will eventually leave to start their senior positions, becoming grant earners and managers, and then take the credit for the work of their juniors.  So, for the junior person, credit is something to be expected down the road, after years of being underpaid. Now, this is a worst-case scenario, certainly.

But, considering the worst case scenario can be educational when considering how to improve simpler problems. On social media, I solicited responses to this worst-case scenario:

Personal Reactions to Losing Credit

Most people shared their emotional responses to these types of situations: sadness, loathing, frustration, disappointment, anger, hurt. As one person said, “Seething and loathing are my go-to ways to deal with it. Super healthy, I know.” But, realistically, all emotions, including negative ones, are human and important.

Once the emotions are felt, what next? Some talked about using smoke and mirrors, through humor, for example, to “deflect negative attention.” Others talked about immediately jumping towards the next thing as a way to get over the disappointment. Many people also spoke of such experiences as a chance to hone their own skills. “I got smart and I don’t let that person use me anymore.”

Overall, such issues with credit have very real ramifications in the workplace. As one person said, “Sadness, feelings of inadequacy, that then spiraled into feelings of being blocked, and taken advantage of. Ultimately lead me to distrust the decision-making process and start my journey out.”

What does credit mean to the workplace?

This challenge is that without an equitable, liberal distribution of credit, the overall work culture is negative and hierarchical.  In a tiered, siloed environment, those at the lowest levels can feel alienated. Overall, this is not the kind of environment where empathy can be fostered. Instead, people are too self-focused. As one respondent said, “I realized in that instance how much time conflict costs employers. So much headspace and mental space went to conflict on work time the actual work suffered.”

What can be done to improve the situation?

When organizations think about empathy, they need to understand the other emotional factors that might be currently in play in the workforce. Credit theft is a just one tripping point for empathetic workplaces. Poor management, challenging silos, and bad communication are other examples. Ideally, make all of these possibilities part of the conversation as you work on building empathy into your workplace practice.

Are Museums Neutral? Or are they Neutered?

While I was going to do a round-up of our favorite blog posts of the year today, a recent post by Rebecca Herz made me want to return to one topic: #MuseumsarenotNeutral. I wrote a bit about it last month, and it was one of the five most popular posts. But, let’s dive in:

Neutrality vs. Neutralize:

What does the word neutrality mean? In common parlance, we often use neutral for cars, when they are neither going forward nor backward. Politically, the term can be used for a nation as “not engaged on either side; specifically: not aligned with a political or ideological grouping.”

In the former definition, the car is static. Anyone who has put a car in neutral when on a hill without the parking brake can attest to the fact that momentum is a possibility. The neutral vehicle is in a state when motion is no longer solely the choice of the driver.

The car is the apt metaphor for considering museums and neutrality. When museums don’t acknowledge that they make choices, they are not freed from making decisions. For example, if when planning an exhibition of American history, if you decide to remain canonical, you are making a choice. Any history is based on decision and interpretation. When you present that history, you are supporting those decisions. You might not see those decisions. You might believe those ideas to be facts, but assuredly, other facts have been left out. If you want to go with the classic two-sides to every story argument, history is full of sides. If you don’t think so, you are working with your eyes closed. Even if your eyes are closed and you claim to be neutral, your decisions mean you are still acting.

To return to the definitions of neutrality, the nation-state sense of neutrality can also be an edifying metaphor. Switzerland was famously neutral during World War II. The tiny mountainous nation was surrounded by Axis states, so they were on an ideal flight path for the Allies in their quest to vanquish the Nazis. Yet, Switzerland had a strict no-fly-zone in effect. Allied planes were impounded in Switzerland. So, while the Swiss didn’t fight on either side, they made it hard for the Allies to fight against the Axis. In effect, their “neutral” action was still making a choice; they chose to allow a government, who massacred millions of innocent people, to continue to do so.

Let’s bring the nation-state metaphor back to the museum sphere. There are points when history is incredibly, egregiously horrendous, like the Holocaust. But, there are other moments, when the depravity of humanity is effaced by other social victories. American history is full of examples. Consider again about mounting a comprehensive installation about American history from above. You need to make choices. If you are choosing between George Washington and his neighbor Jasper, you will choose our first president, certainly. Square footage costs dollars.

But, other choices are harder. What about choosing to discuss if Washington had slaves? Omitting a mention of his slaves is a choice. You might think you are doing this to remain neutral and avoid the issue of race. But, what you are doing is supporting an America that doesn’t acknowledge slavery.

Museums have a long history of sanitizing installations with the victors earning the spoils of history. But the act of removing elements of history is attempting to divorce collections from politics. Simplifying history will almost always sway towards those in power.

Museums are, at their core, social institutions; if not, they would be repositories. Collections are held in care for people. In galleries, material culture becomes social education.  The question then becomes what education is offered in the museum galleries? There is great responsibility in this decision—and great power. When 20th century museums increased their education offerings, they were using that power to support social causes.

Power and museums have a relationship like peanut butter and jelly. When combined, they are hard to separate. In many ways, this is why the issue of neutrality is so hard. Museums have been able to support power subtly under the guise of neutrality and devoid of politics.

The aversion to “Museums are not Neutral” from the field is in part because as a field we have fooled ourselves. We made political decisions when we placed non-Western collections “in context” which European collections in pristine white galleries. And, we made different choices when we moved those same collections into pristine galleries. Art museums aren’t the only one making political choices. Science museums have long shown prehistoric objects, taking a stance on evolution. Every moment of collecting, installing, and interpreting is a moment when you make a choice. What you exclude says as much as what you include.

Finally, there is no getting away from politics. Everything in our culture is socially constructed. When you think you can be neutral, you are missing the natural biases in society. This can be extremely dangerous. You can inadvertently make choices that make your installations more partisan.

Return to your installation about George Washington. Without it, you are clearly taking a side, which is that slavery, and the people associated with it, isn’t worth discussing. If you acknowledge slavery in the installation, you are opening yourself to share your institutional interpretation. This will be challenging, no doubt. It’s hard for many people to see slave owners as good people making bad choices. It’s equally hard for some people to see George Washington as a slave owner.

Here is the crux of the neutrality issue. Bringing up complexity in the museum is hard. We often neuter narratives in order to maintain our veneer of neutrality.  Our visitors are often not well-versed enough to notice what has been omitted, and as such they are getting partisan information. By remaining blind to bias, we are doing our field and our visitors a disservice.

Museum Education 2018 Trend Forecast

Last month, I put a call out on Twitter for museum professionals to share their predictions for 2018. Before we get into the trends, it is useful to share the respondents’ collective vision of museums and the field.

What is a museum?

I invited participants to share their definition of a museum in 140 words (The survey was produced before #280characters). The themes of the responses could be categorized into three big themes:

  1. Object-oriented: Respondents used works like objects, conservation, and loan.
  2. Social Space: Words like institution and space were often paired with words like gather and community.
  3. Learning focused: The responses described the broadest sense of education, including scholarship, experiences, and interprets.

What is museum education?

 

Respondents were asked to give five words that defined museum education. The terms were overwhelmingly positive, with only 1/3 having negative connotations. Most of the positive words related to the output of museum educator and the experiences of visitors. There was a broad span of terms, including words that describe specific activities like workshops and terms that describe methodological approaches like engaging. Some of the terms might connect to values held by practitioners, like flexible, creative, dynamic. A few respondents shared words that might indicate changes in the field like transforming and evolving.

The negative and ambiguous terms related to the working in the field. Some words like comfortable and complex can be seen as positive or negative. Other words like undervalued and frustrating are clearly negative. These words often allude to the feelings of workers, feeling undervalued, underpaid, and stifled. Other negative words focus on the programs of museums and how they impact museum education like siloed, unchanged, and racially white.

Museum Education 2018 Trendcasting

Respondents were shared many issues about visitors, both generally and also specifically on K12. They shared their interest in developing programs that were relevant and experiential. The other major theme in responses were about social justice and access, as well as the training needed to be able to create equitable programming.  Above, one can see the relative importance of the major themes, and below one can see the nuance in the responses.

When seen together, museum education in 2018 would like to offer visitors a high-quality, inclusive experiences but feel real challenges in order to do so like funding and training. Educators are thinking about how to evolve to meet the learning needs of visitors. They are interested in finding ways to include narrative and responsive experiences to engage visitors. But, they are also thoughtful about the fact that diversity, access, equity need to be planned and supported.

The respondents discussed this tension between goals and funds in their trendcasting for 2022. The above graphic shows the aggregate of all of the long-form responses about museum education in 2022.In other words, museum educators do not foresee that the problems in the field will improve in the next five years. Digital and technology were big themes for the future, particularly AI. There were real concerns about balancing technology and collections-based experiences. There were also real fears about challenges for the future in terms of funding and staffing.  

 

Stepping up a level, looking at the projected themes helps clarify the biggest issues projected for 2022. Not surprisingly, there was a greater disparity in themes for the 2022 trends, as forecasting so far out is more challenging.  That said, notice the certain issues like disaster readiness appear on the 2022 themes list but were absent from the 2018 list.

Conclusion

The educators had clear expectations for 2018. Equity and access was a major theme, along with the perennial issues of schools and visitor experiences. However, funding and workplace challenges were equally important. Taken together, one can see a distinct tension between expectations and possibilities. Museum educators want to do more but are already strapped. In many ways, the 2022 projections indicate that there is a sense that the big challenges of funding and equity/access might not be addressed.

So, how as a field can we thwart the predictions for museum education 2022?

  • How can we address the issues of frustration in the field?
  • How we move our work into a supported position in our organizations?
  • What types of funding changes or expectation changes are needed?
  • How can we make real changes with equity and access so that five years from now we are looking at broader audiences?

What are your thoughts on the trends for 2018 or futureproofing the field for 2022?

 

Also, if you would like to look at the raw data, drop me a line at seema@brilliantideastudio.com 

Instagram and the Evolution of Museums (Blog/ Graphic)

Museums might be said to be on the higher-end of the leisure world. They have cache. If not, imagine the situation associated with the phrase, “We are at the museum today.” Now imagine being in the situation to be able to say, “we are at an amusement park right now.” Both are perfectly enjoyable, no doubt. But, the former is more rarified than the latter. Amusement parks bear their mission in their name–an outdoor space to bring joy. Museums, on the other hand, as a word is somewhat out of step with the current usage. The word denotes these sites as places for people to encounter the muses.  While certainly, no museum is actively discouraging convening with the muses, such spiritual-intellectual pursuits are just one of a range of experiences that the contemporary museum hopes to foster. Unlike amusement park, with only a century or so of history, museums have 400 of history. In the word of whip-fast brand pivots, museums change is glacial, but they have continued to evolve. This evolution includes slowly but surely fostering social media use by patrons about collections. These moments when the glacial change becomes apparent can confuse people. Every once in a while, the media bemoans changes to museums like the use of social in the galleries. But, hard as it is to believe, change has been part of museum culture since it began.

Change in Museums

Early museums began in Europe.  A museum, as described in the Ephraim Chambers Cyclopædia of 1750, is “any place set apart as a repository for things that have some immediate relation to the arts, or to the muses”, while a repository was “a store-house or place where things are laid-up, and kept.” In other words, early museums were set apart from warehouses by the act of curating meaningful arrangements. Museums were a place “to instruct the mind and sow the seeds of Virtue” as noted by Charles Willson Peale founder of the Philadelphia Museum in 1784. These spaces were meant to be visited by the well-heeled they have the proper disposition and pre-knowledge to appreciate the nuance of museum installations.  Museums were in keeping with a host of amateur activities pursued by gentlemen during their leisure.  Contemplation and conversation over objects were fun for a certain class of men.

 

The idea of museums spread quickly along the same networks that supported the colonialism of the age. By the early 19th century, museums were found on all inhabited continents. But, by this time, museums had already changed substantively. Rather than being for a select group of educated men, museums were now seen as a place for the general public.  Additionally, visitors were allowed to self-guide through museums rather than taking a prescribed tour of the galleries.  With the inclusion of all types of people, museums began to foreground their educational nature. In their first century, they could be assured an audience with the necessary foundations to understand the collection.  But, in the 19th century, as James Smithson, founder of the Smithsonian, said museums are “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Museums were a way to share ideas with anyone.

Zoo Sign with Definitions

The 20th century saw a massive growth of museums.  These museums maintained and augmented their educational value. Most museums developed departments tasked with education. Spaces began to reflect this educational charge. Education was diversifying in the real world and museums met this challenge accordingly. But, museums also began to offer more entertaining ways to explore collections, like classes for children and lectures for adults.

The first decades of the 21st century have seen an exponential rise in the number of museums. Museums are no longer solely about collections but also ideas. More importantly, museums are fighting against many leisure spaces for visitors’ attention. Museum has met this challenge in innovative ways. I, myself, happily spent a career developing family guides, technology content, role-playing games, and social media campaigns. (I am the middle person in the picture :>)

 

Museums Now

Museums in many ways have returned to the roots. Rather than doing it wrong, visitors are taking up the charge of the early founders. People are enlightened by the muse in our galleries, taking and sharing photographs. Now, the question is how do we continue with the 19th-century ideal that museums should be for the broad public? Firstly, by encouraging and supporting the action of taking photographs. Social allows visitors to engage with the best intentions of museums in the language of our time. 

The Role of Relevancy and Museum (Data)

The average American is exposed to more than 5,000 branded messages every day. These messages can be everything from the logo on your tea bag to the ads that run while you are streaming NPR. In this saturated environment, how do you choose what to consume? Research indicates that many consumers are carefully privileging socially-responsible brands. In a recent survey by Havas, 75% of consumers expect brands to contribute to their quality of life. In other words, people expect everything from Adobe to AT&T to have a meaningful impact on society.

This is the environment that museum patrons live in. They don’t leave that mindful brand mindset when they walk into the museum. There is the point of disconnection between museums and consumers. Consumers are barraged with tweets about NFL owners standing with their police-brutality protesting players and the political advertisements of beer companies. They walk into museums, often places with socially-responsible missions, and find sanitized, subtle messages of social consciousness.

Quite to the contrary, they choose to be museum patrons, effectively consumers of the museum’s brand, because they appreciate the contributions of the museum. While some might directly patronize a museum for its philanthropic or educational contributions, most often direct attendance (and the associated earned revenue) is based on interest. Those people are walking in, and spending their hard-earned cash, because they value something in the museum. Consumers have more choice than ever, often in their own homes. Consumers of these exhibitions want that experience, and they are choosing these spaces over other leisure options.

So, what do patrons want in terms of relevancy?

First, it’s important to note that “meaningful” is in the eye of the beholder.  Sometimes patrons want something that feels a certain way.  (I have more to say about transformation in museums here). Visitors want to engage in experiences rather than being observers in inert spaces. A recent article in Wired extolled the power of the Instagram-friendly museum or exhibition. (Yayoi Kusuma’s exhibition Infinite Mirrors might be the exemplar of this genre.) These types of exhibits are relevant in their experiential nature; just as media is becoming ever more interactive, so are these exhibit spaces.

But, those types of experiences are the rare example not the norm for museums.  What about the 98% of other museum experiences to be relevant? Most museums have collections that they preserve and share. How do they highlight their collections for a populous that privileges meaningful impact? This summer I invited professionals to share their ideas about if and how museum collections should address social issues. The following discussion draws on the ideas of the 116 respondents.

Should museums engage in social issues? 

The vast majority of respondents felt that museums should tackle social issues and contemporary issues.  Very few respondents said no.  But, look more closely at the “maybes.” This was a sizable minority of responses.  There were more respondents on the fence about presenting social issues. In other words, museums should engage with the present moment, but maybe not with the social issues of this moment.  This highlights a real challenge in the field–we want to be relevant but maybe remain out of the fray on social issues.  This is in opposition to what our patrons expect and experience outside the museum where brands are engaging in social issues.

Exploring the qualitative responses helps understand the nuances of these answers. In many ways, the “maybe” camp comes from a desire to remain collection-centered.   Museums need to use their mission and their collection as their compass to make choices on how they deal with social issues.

When asked why museums should deal with contemporary and social issues, a number of people cited the fact that museums are social constructs and far from neutral.

  • “Museums have a responsibility to not exist in a bubble. By nature, museums are a reflection of the community it is in. And it needs to reflect that in all aspects.”
  • Museums are part of the fabric of the community and in order to engage the community, we must address their issues.
  • “To remain neutral is to enable oppression. If a museum doesn’t say something, the silence says it for them.”

Many people felt that museums needed to respond to social issues due to their mission.  

  • “Education is a prime function of museums”
  • “Tying the present to the past is a vital activity and contained in the heart of the museum mission”

Engaging in social and contemporary topics goes beyond the mission—it is the ethical prerogative of museums to engage in this service.

  • “Museums have power.”
  • “Museums should find valuable connections between contemporary topics and their core values and mission. They need to stay in service for their public/audience and their institution.”
  • “Because museums are already deeply connected with contemporary and newsworthy topics. By not “dealing” with them we’re choosing not to engage the very people many of our institutions are tasked to engage more of!”

Some professionals noted that this move to relevancy was not selfless. As noted above, people are walking into museums with certain cultural expectations. Shying away from social relevance puts museums out of step with society. Engaging with contemporary topics and social issues was seen as a way to maintain current audiences as well as future-proof the museum.

How?

This is the big question. There is really no one answer, as there is no one type of museum. Many of the respondents highlighted the social nature of museums. Museums have a special position in society to be able to engage in dialogue that is unlike any other type of institution; one that can put people at the interstices of many moments in history.

  • “Relevance to community, opportunity to present difficult complex issues in ways that invite reflection and possibly dialogue”
  • “I think it is important to stand for something and a museum is a place where those topics can be argued and given a platform”

Though many museum professionals were quick to point out that museums have to be thoughtful in their social conscious programming. They noted that museums, not unlike commercial brands, can come off as opportunistic when attempting to engage in social issues.

  • When they do it in thoughtful collection-centered ways, it expands the museums.
  • The engagement should feel authentic to the museum’s mission and personality. It should not come across as opportunistic or trendy.

Using the respondents as a sample, many museums are tackling social and contemporary issues in ephemeral, event-based ways like programs and social media, for example.  These kinds of incursions make sense on some level. With exhibitions often taking half a decade to plan, relevancy can be a hard goal. Programs are quick to plan and implement. However, they also often have a smaller reach in terms of audiences. They also offer museums a chance to do something without actually changing their status quo.

What should museums be doing? 

The short answer is more. Museums have a much smaller share of the public consciousness. Every staff member of your local art museum could do social justice programming, and still, their reach would be much smaller than one football player’s reach. That said, museums have more patrons annually than sporting events. This disparity is telling. We reach more people and yet we choose not to make waves.

  1. Museums need to speak out at the institutional level to use their power to make a change. Social media is a great way to do this but there are other ways like exhibition policy standing for change, directors marching in protests, and joint-statements for change. Here is a great example led by the Guggenheim to fight the immigration ban. 
  2. Museums need to center social issues into their exhibitions and permanent collection planning.
  3. Museums need to stand up to donors who might have political motives to prevent social issues from being addressed.
  4. Museum professionals need to advocate for big action, not just isolated programs.

Thanks to everyone who contributed to this data, by responding, forwarding, sharing, considering, etc. The anonymized raw data is available to anyone who would like to play. Just email me at seema (at) brilliantideastudio.com . The first blog post about this survey is here. 

Useful Associated Reading

Andrea Kim on the Culture Lab Manifesto

Anabel Roque Rodriquez’ article about museum neutrality

Anna Schwartz on museum neutrality

Importance of Protest Art