The Sweet Spot for Interpretation & Questions for the Whole Team

 

The ideal interpretive approach is about blending staff ideas with visitor insights. First and foremost, the team should consider and understand what visitors want from your organization using formal evaluation. Without this information, your organization is working blind.

With that research in hand, the team needs to spend some time working together dealing with big issues. A previous colleague used to call these types of meetings the come to Jesus meetings. While I don’t have that same cultural reference, I would say that these are the courtship meetings. These meetings help you learn about each other and your ideas about your collections. The questions in the graphic solicit anecdotal ideas about visitors as well as input about institutional culture/mores. Organizations often ignore staff input about visitors as being less important than formal visitor research. This move is wasteful. As long as the anecdotal input is balanced with research, this staff insight should not be disregarded. Staff members of all types are experts in visitors; don’t discount this rich source for information.

Ideally, internal staff input, such as the answers to these questions, are balanced with visitor research to develop the sweet spot organization. Each organization will have a different sweet spot. In the end, your team can develop a document that articulates the following:

  • Visitors Want:
  • Visitors will feel:
  • Visitors will understand:
  • Ideal experience
  • Experience limits
  • Ideal content tone
  • Content limits
  • Culture Norms
  • Institutional Limits

Before you start this process, make sure everyone on you have a strong understanding of each how work culture can affect the process. 

The Sweet-Spot in Interpretive Approach & the Politics of Mounting Installations

 

Helping visitors engage in collections is a primary concern for museums. Museum professionals often partner with various vendors, consultants, and partners to do this work, for example commissioning firms to develop interactives for exhibitions. Mounting these installations can be exhausting and rife with interpersonal challenges. Visitors walking into spaces, ideally, have no idea how contentious and challenging mounting installations can be, thankfully.  Even if the customer experience appears alright, the staff experience should not suffer to mount such installations.

What causes interpersonal challenges in mounting spaces and installations?

I have always loved the phrase lock-step and turn-key. Both phrases scream efficiency, ease, simplicity, and replicability. None of these adjectives would be useful in describing the mounting of a collection space. Collections managers and database administrators work had to make systematize collection data. But short of digital systems, most things about collections are complexity and nuance. Objects come to museums for their rarity and complications. Installations are meant to help people with little background knowledge fall into love (like) with an object. Collectively, the work of the people mounting an installation/ exhibition is to bewitch/ bemuse the public.

Getting visitors from 0-60 about collections is a tall order and its one about which every person (either on staff or on contract) feels passionate. Emotions can run high, and the stakes can feel enormous. People on the teams come with different expertise; each person seems the DMZ and faultlines in the process differently and through the lens of their own professional role.  For example, while a curator might understand the nuance between using certain phrases (say artwork vs artifact), others on the team see these as unimportant arguments. Everyone on the team is often placed in the position of arguing their corner, and everyone can come out of the process feeling bruised.

 

Lucille Ball Eating GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

How can these challenges be mitigated?

Everyone on the team is hoping to get an interpretation for installations that is interesting and easy to use without compromising the museum’s reputation. This sweet-spot is a bit of a holy grail. But, diminishing inter-personal challenges and developing better systems is essential to improving interpretation. Sound systems result in superior products, and broken systems result in subpar products. Think of how a broken conveyor belt will not be able to create wonderful chocolates.

The first step in developing a good working process is to agree that ideal interpretation and installations need to be easy to access, understandable, and grounded in research. Like a three-headed dog, these three elements have to work in concert to go forward. Often museums allow their legacy to serve an anchor preventing action towards innovation and excellence. Museums can also be fooled by the newest fads to skew too far away from their core competencies.

After agreeing to collective and balanced actions, teams need to determine more practical issues, such as work plans, sign-offs, and tone. Underlying these practical issues the teams need to decide and articulate the no-go zones for their institution. Every institution has issues that cannot be discussed easily. Donor issues and collection histories often top these lists. In working with teams, I like to put these issues on paper. This process can feel uncomfortable. But, these lists are also freeing, in that one person on the team is not required to be the guardian of these verboten topics.

Finally, any good plan needs some follow through. Often, the best-laid intentions are destroyed because there is no big stick. Museum staff managers are rarely given training on deescalating emotional conflict; a fear of conflict is epidemic in many museum senior staff members. With so much work and so little time & money, who can fault these managers. The result is a culture of conflict-avoiding people finding ways to step around and then crashing into challenging personalities. When I have worked on successful installation and interpretative teams, there is a person who is judge, jury, room mother, and traffic controller. (Ideally, the team has been set up so that everyone is on their best behavior and everyone understands they are in this together FOR the visitor, so challenges don’t bubble up.)

Conclusion

Interpretative work is basically like all human to human communication, prone to emotions and challenges. In installation work, the bigger challenge might be that the people starting the conversations about the collections (the staff) are not actually present with the receivers (the visitors). The installations, from signs to interactives, need to speak to visitors on their own. When the systems create these installations are smooth, the conversations can go singingly.

 

On Thursday, we will talk about questions teams can ask themselves to hit the ideal sweet spot for interpretation. 

This topic also ties in with a previous post about the relationship between interpretation and research.

Content Strategy Matrix for Developing Compelling Content (Graphic)

The best writing is complex. Persuasive text needs to inform in order to convince the reader. Inspiring texts often grow from a kernel of fact. Enjoyable texts are the best way to feed people information. While creative writers have more latitude to move their readers, every writer needs to understand how to balance these aspects of the written text.

In informational or interpretive text, non-specialists have a low threshold for information overload. Entertainment is a wonderful way to engage people information, like a spoon full of sugar. Convincing and inspiring people is much more challenging in interpretive text than in creative text.  Convincing people with ideas is often about arming them with relevant ideas. Inspirational texts are, perhaps, the hardest types of interpretive texts. Inspiration often requires empathy and emotional engagement, a tall order for most interpretive text. But, some of the most successful types of inspirational text balance information, persuasion, and inspiration.

 

 

 

While each text needs to balance the different elements, overall, when working on interpretative content for an exhibition, the writer should be aware that each element has a different weight. Think about reading heavy, emotional text; you can only take so much. On the other hand, humorous or entertaining text can be read by the ream. Therefore, be thoughtful when constructing an exhibition to weigh the various aspects.

 

Thinking Systematically about Content / Interpretation in #Museums

 

Thinking systematically about content creation requires having a facile ability to navigate between communicating the overall idea and articulating the component concepts. The ideal systematic thinker is both a big picture and detail-oriented person. While some people seem naturally able to employ systematic thinking, practice can help anyone become more capable of working systematically.

Why Systematic Thinking for Content Creation?

We all think differently with varied knowledge bases and ideological beliefs. Good communicators are able to frame their ideas in ways that address the cognitive complexity of humans. Strong communication frames complexity simply.

Every writer who creates a paragraph that communicates an idea has practiced systematic thinking. Good writers develop themes by knitting together persuasive, satisfying sentences into a compelling, cohesive message. Writers focus on the parts as well as the whole when they ply their craft. Each sentence matters as much as the paragraph as a whole in order to ensure that the message is communicated.

Content-creation requires the same type of systematic thinking. Exhibitions, labels, interactives are just like that paragraph–tools to share a complex message simply.

How?

Just as writing takes practice, content planning is a honed skill. Putting together ideas is not like simple math. Rather than a simple jigsaw puzzle, most messages need to be communicated using a series of complex and overlapping ideas. When interconnected in a certain manner, these ideas come together to express the message.

Just as writers are usually big readers, good content creators explore how others share messages. Be a purposeful consumer. Notice how the ideas are combined to express a message. Make value judgments about the efficacy of the message communication.  This type of thoughtful communication, paired with actual practice with content creation, will improve your ability to communicate well.

 

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.)

 

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.

Touchpoints:

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

Reactions:

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.

Actions:

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.

Museums and the Web 18 Review OR Reality can be hard even when its not Virtual

Museums and the Web 18

Museums and the Web 2018 was hosted in lovely Vancouver. As always, friends from around the world descended upon the town for ideas and enjoyment. While the MuseWeb organization does a great job of publishing articles that expand on the presentations, here are the highlights and themes from this year’s conference:

 

VR/AR/R: All types of reality were discussed and debated. Virtual reality was featured in the keynote, from LucasFilms VR lab no less. The back channel, a bit of unicorn at conferences these days, got fired up, with good reason. Virtual reality, in practice, currently feels more virtual than real. And, we as a field have real problems. We need to slay our dragons before marching out onto a virtual quest.  In addition, VR is about being in a new reality. For museums, this is a big challenge. We want people to explore our reality, not escape our reality. In that way, AR seems supremely promising. Augmented reality is like seeing your own world through a surprising lens. Interpretation at museums is basically augmented reality, without the tech. So, this tech feels like a natural option. That said, a few pioneers have marched into VR, eyes open. From what they say about the frontier; it is challenging but compelling if you work really hard to do the VR right and have money from the private sector. Oh, that is, if you aren’t under 13, because insurance, et al, are not into VR for the teeny, tiny visitors.

 

More Money/ More Problems: “Big museums get to do big projects” used to be the story of the field. Now, with a proliferation of technology options, technology is being used across the sector. Investment dollars don’t have a direct relationship with success. Leaders who lay off their ego and instead focus on their visitors will succeed.

 

The Thing Doesn’t Matter; The Thing Really Matters: A few years ago, the theme of tech conferences could be: its all about tech/ its not about tech. There was a real tension between the need to focus on content and the need to focus on tech.  Truthfully, they both matter. One is about how the road is built; the other is about where the road goes. For the road to be useful, both its physical manifestation and its functional raison d’etre have to be considered together. This tension from conferences past seems to have been transmuted slightly. Rather than should we tech or should we not, now the field has moved into a bit more nuanced questions: how should we do this? Should it be tech?

 

The Workplace can be an Albatross or our Lifejacket: We are at the end of the college years in the field of museum technology. In our infancy, we could do one-off projects because everything young ones do is great. In our teen years, we showed responsibility by attempting to implement enterprise solutions. In the last few years, like college students, we did group projects better than ever by playing nice(r) with other departments and other institutions. Now, as if with new found maturity, we are aching to make our lessons mean more for the field and more our visitors. But, how? We are struggling with making the workplace equitable and reasonable. We are trying to get others to understand that tech is for everyone; and that everyone needs to know tech. We are communicating better ways for work to happen. We are hoping that our leaders grab those life-jackets; many in our field feel like they are drowning.

 

Be Analytical but not an A**hole: We are all trying to understand everything better. Data feels like the place to get answers. Numbers seem like they don’t lie. (Be warned. The people crunching the numbers might inadvertently make them do so.)  We want the best museum: well-run and well-attended. But, this ideal has a Shangri-la-like quality; a foggy possible existence that is remote and unreachable. We use data to help us track a path to this ideal. We are getting closer and closer, but it is still not quite in reach.

 

Collaboration & Coalitions: Working together is the hardest and easiest part of work.  That is, in theory, it makes perfect sense to work together towards a common goal–easy peasy lemon squeezy.  However,  nothing that involves people is easy. We, as a species, are erratic and confusing.  Therefore, collaboration can be the hardest part of the workplace. Politics and bad behavior can cost an organization hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Killing it at collaboration means everyone on the team succeeding.  Collaboration gets easier with practice, though.  Thoughtful action can result in being better collaborators, which will eventually lead to an easier/ better workplace situation. Inter-organization collaboration expands reach exponentially (with the commensurate expansion of challenges.)

 

Conclusion: These year’s MW had a sort of sedate quality, as if many in the field are in their crystallises getting ready to burst out in full flutter. So many conversations were about doing better at our work. Refinement and improvement seems like key issues in the field.

 

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.