03 Oct

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.


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

13 Jun

On Objectivity & What Museums Can Learn from News Organizations

Recently, Koven Smith retweeted an article from the American Alliance of Museums that unpacked the contention that museums are one of the most trusted sources of knowledge. An overwhelming number of respondents (87%) felt that museums were “one of the most trustworthy sources of objective information.”  As the AAM article lays out, visitors did not see museums as a place to deal with relevant or controversial issues, i.e. issues that might be considered subjective. Instead, museums were seen as spaces for leisure enjoyment, not for controversy.

On Objectivity: 

This article and the tweet struck a chord, because I have been thinking about the perception of objectivity since Museum and the Web.  The opening plenary, given by Tim Phillips of Beyond Conflict, served as a call to arms to engage people in our collections through multiple relevant intercessions. As is my habit, I took notes by Twitter.  One of my tweets seemed fairly innocuous to me:

In response, I received a number of troll-style responses (now blocked). The trolls spoke of the destruction of America itself by trying to subvert museums from a single narrative to a variety of ancillary, and unnecessary, narratives.  While I love a tweet storm as much as many, and enjoy bringing any point down to 139 choice characters, I was at a loss. The anger about inclusion didn’t surprise me. Equity often makes people uncomfortable; there is always the fear that a bigger table means less companionship for some. What surprised me were number of comments about the objectivity of museums.

Museum work is social situated. Curating is about deciding on a narrative. If you are doing cutting-edge work, you might be completely changing the historical record. Even in the simplest rehang of a gallery, choices are made. Some narratives didn’t make it in.

People seem acutely aware that news makes tough choices. Readers seem to understand that news is subjective, even before Fake News became a regular harping point. Letters to the editor often include points where readers disagree with writers. On the Media, on NPR, regularly shares issues about media responses to issues, in terms of scale and approach.  People get that the news is not a monolith.

While the backlash against fake news can be searing, there is also a wonderful public discourse and engagement with the products of the Media.  With that in mind, museums would only grow patrons by shedding their veneer of objectivity.  Implementing this would require molting of long projected tenets, and this will be challenging.  However, the transformation of the media in the last decade offers useful starting points.

Here are some useful starting points:

  1. Ideas are the product!  Newspapers, with their wonderful smell of printers ink, are slowing becoming like the platypus, relics of another era that exists in small quantity reminding us of the past. The news itself has long since been freed of paper, moved to the electronic realm, an evolutionary leap.   Media companies stayed with what they knew, sharing current ideas, rather than reinventing their format out of whole cloth.  Museums are good at interpreting ideas, putting them in frameworks, describing patterns, and drawing conclusions from grouping objects. These are all idea activities.  Museums do sometimes remember this, like when a particularly good app comes out (go to SFMOMA now). But, often, museums can’t free themselves from their current form to focus on ideas. They can’t imagine the next step in the evolutionary path, and if they aren’t careful, they could go the way of the dodo.
  2. The News is New The earliest newspapers sprung up around the same time museums, both born of Enlightenment ideals of knowledge seeking. In that time, newspapers have changed, particularly in the 21st century, turning from newspapers to media companies (as discussed above).  As a result, media companies project newness, and also practice it. They create new features, like the New York Times interactives or VR initiatives. They fail. They try again.  Museums, on the other hand,  appear to be the same old places with calm quiet galleries.  They project the air of having been the same for time immemorial. Now, as a museum change-maker, I myself might argue that museums have changed.  But, these changes, like apps and learning spaces, likely seem incremental to outsiders.
  3. The Media Makers are in the Story Media groups are transparent about processes. News reporters shoot 2-shots with themselves looking on as victims cry.  Writers includes phrases, hackneyed as they are, like “this reporter for one.”  Museums, on the other hand, practice subjectivity while projecting objectivity.  Without seeing the process, visitors assume a seamless, faultless interpretive plan. Museum could show the choice points and highlight the subject nature of their work better. And, I don’t mean trotting out curators. I mean showing the multiplicity of narratives and challenges to making interpretive decisions.
  4. The News Never Sleeps Years ago, I had a friend in graduate school who had been a journalist.  He could write papers without any procrastination and in a blink. I asked him how he could possibly accomplish such feats. Simple, he told me. He is just being a journalist. Now, while museums don’t need to do a 16-page spread everyday, the timeline of newspapers allows for little preciosity. There isn’t time.  But, the fast timeline also allows for people to hone their skills and for readers to shape the product–everyday.  Think of how good labels would be if there were op eds about their drawbacks!
  5. Errata, errata, errata When you work fast, and with ideas that are subjective, you will get things wrong.  Frankly, when you spend 5 years on a book and an exhibition, you will also get things wrong.  Humans make mistakes.  In the case of media companies, as the publish/ broadcast their ideas, it is quite natural for them to similarly push out their corrections and apologies.  Museums, on the other hand, are more reticent to share such mistakes in interpretation.  When you don’t showcase your mistakes, people don’t know you make them.  When museums hide their mistakes, people see them as static and immutable.

Want to learn more?  Try this podcast that I found very interesting from @museopunks. 

23 May

5 Big Ideas from #GoogleIO For Museums to Note #IO17 #MuseTech

Google I/O, that glistening moment when developers galore descend up San Francisco to hear prognostications, occurred mid-May.  The keynote speech offered some insight into Google’s vision on the next decade. Admittedly, GoogleIO 2017 is an exercise in marketing synergy and willing suspension of disbelief. The keynote had the feel of equal parts TED-talk, Home Shopping Network, Dad Jokes, and Nickeleon’s “You Can’t Do that on Television”, with a soupcon of Svengali. If you look past the hokey jokes and the corporate name drops, there were some useful harbingers of our possible future.

And, why look to Google I/O for futurecasting? As Sundar Pichai said Google “Uses technical insights to solve problems at scale for deep engagement.” If you can’t image the scale of Google, think of it this way. 1.2 Billion images are uploaded to Google Photo every day. With about 35,000 museums in the nation, all of the collections in the country could be uploaded in a week or so.

Google is masterful at understanding first world problems and addressing them.  Much of the undertone for Google I/O was that they were helping cure the stress of the era (despite the fact those stresses grew from tech like Google). With the power of scale, they are poised to continue to make civilization wide changes. (Think I am being hyperbolic? Reflect on the diffusion of the phrase “Google It”.)

Overall, Google I/O was all about artificial intelligence, where machines perform actions that had originally needed human thinking. If the mobile period was about touch, AI is about sight & voice/sound. AI is becoming more human in its meaning making, particularly in its seamless understanding of visual and textual data. The change to AI will have major social changes. Think about the changes that occurred with mobile. When a new platform is introduced, peoples’ modes of interacting change until those practices become naturalized.

So, what practices will become natural for our future visitors?

  1. Computers will be able to read images and text: Google Lens will make reading images increasingly sophisticated. For example, your phone will be able to “read” signs, turning the pictures into text. In other words, images, not just text, will be understood and acted on.  What does this mean for museums? The answer is two-fold. First, museums will have ever more robust tools to read images.  Second, it means visitors will expect handheld technology to make sense of the world seamlessly. They will not want keyboards, QR codes, or any barrier in the way of knowledge acquisition.
  2. You will talk to computers and they will talk back: Google Home now has 4.9% error rate for misunderstanding spoken words; this down from 8% two years ago. Soon, a variety of tools will respond to a voice command. What does this mean for museums? Again, bye bye keyboard commands. If you want to find the fiercest dino, you will expect to ask a technology tool and then expect that tool to respond in audio correctly. (Unless you are in an art museum. In that case, it will tell you that sadly, they got no dinos).
  3. Google Maps will go granular: Virtual Positioning Services (VPS) helps move AR forward. This tool was described in terms of shopping, where you will be able to know where anything is on a mapped shelf in a warehouse. What does this mean for museums? There are several possibilities here. First, virtual collection record-keeping might change collections management and collection access. Next, think about gallery wayfinding. VPS will be able to calculate people’s position to a few centimeters. Instead of using text to point people to a certain basket amongst 100 baskets, your tool will be able to point people to the exact basket that defines the genre.
  4. The artificial world will feel pretty real: Overall, experience computing more like the real world. Already, many students are enjoying AR. Google Expedition is a classroom app where students can experience coral reefs. What does this mean for museums? Firstly, our visitors of the future will be raised with AR as part of their regular experiences. This can mean that they will expect this of museums, though if we implement AR, they will have high expectation. Alternately, they might choose museums for their authenticity.  I suspect the future of AR in museums will be both really good AR and then AR-absent experiences.
  5. Promiscuous content will be the norm: Youtube is already a culture that fosters creative, iterative, and interrogative content. And other tools like Google Seurat are making it easier to render in 3D for VR. In other words, AR/ VR will become ever easier to implement even for citizen-technologists. Everyone will be doing it. What does this mean for museums? This to me is the most exciting point. The tools that were once in the hands of only a few are ever more quickly being available to many. Visitors of the future will not only be living in a milieu suffused with Artificial Intelligence but also be creators of such content. In other words, imagine your crowdsourced Instagram beta project crossed with robots, Pokemon, or Jurassic Park.  Alright, kidding. My point is that you won’t be able to imagine a specific outcome of these techs for our field. However, we should expect that technology will become ever more seamlessly human in its behavior; our visitors will expect our tools to follow suit.

This is what struck me about Google I/O.  What about you? What struck you? And, where  will that tech take our field in the future?




22 May

The Near-Future of Museum Education for K-12 Audiences



This afternoon I had the privilege of participating in the North Carolina Museum of Art’s project, #NCMAAsk (search twitter for more), which is focused on museums, technology, and the future.  There were a number of issues that came up, but, many of them centered around hearing, listening, and flexibility.

Museums in their partnership with schools have can serve as advocates for students and teachers, but only if they are creating programming, experiences, resources, and spaces that respond to their needs.  In terms of advocating for teachers, it includes helping them out, it includes offering teachers the language that they can use to communicate the importance of the arts to their higher ups. It terms of advocating for students, it is about creating and implementing curriculum that is student centered.

Museums have the lucky position of being outside of the school’s systems.  They don’t have the same rules and museum experiences don’t end in grades.  We don’t know who is the smart student, the weird kid, or the screw up.  A good museum educator takes all of the kids where they come, and brings them all into the experience.  On an even footing, but in a totally different learning experience, a totally different kid might find themselves as the smart kid.  In museums, K-12 classrooms get the chance to visit an alternate learning universe, if it is even for one hour.

I was asked to me an oracle of the future of education.  I think there are some big issues, such as competency-based education and the complete restructuring of the grade-level system.  I think museums, with their high-quality digital tools, apps, and powerful search engines, will be poised to be right there at the horizon of education.  But, I am more focused on the closer targets.  In the short term, I am focused on how to deepen engagement through multi-visit experiences, as well as the ways that after school education can be impacted by museums. Also, I am interested to think about the ways that museums can use technology to augment K-12, such as through distance learning, online learning, and simulations.

Finally, individualized learning is already happening every where.  Phones are tools for learning and creativity.  Museums can employ them in gallery spaces with students. But, this requires the staff being comfortable with these tools and finding authentic ways to use them.  Taking the students lead, so allowing them to search on their phones when they are researching something in the galleries, is a great way to use mobile as a tool.