Vistor-Centered Interpretation

 

There is a symphonic aspect to exhibition and museum gallery planning. Many ideas come together to create something coherent and ideally pleasing to the audience.  Just as some music is appealing to only a few, and others hit the charts, some exhibitions and museum spaces work for more rarified audiences. That said,  museums can do better about understanding what types of ideas are broader audience-specific and what are for more rarified circles.  The challenge can be that museums focus too much on those items that are most interesting to the fewest people.

The graphic highlights the types of information on the scale of ease and impact. Ideally, museums should strive for balance. An exhibition with only top-level information (“the thing” in the graphic) might hit the broadest audience but will leave die-hard patrons cold. Similarly, an interpretation that only drills down will be irrelevant to the majority of visitors.  The grade-grey triangle above shows the relative amount of interpretation by category. The majority of their interpretation should be in the categories, “the thing” “the cool thing” and “the cool thing is like this thing I know.”  In these three categories, the museum is helping visitors find answers to the biggest questions and helping visitors make relevant connections.  In this way, they are centering the majority of visitors through interpretation.

The Future of the Art Museum: The Alternative Possibilities

 

I was struck by this response to a previous post of mine. I wasn’t the only one. It had 40 likes and 18 retweets.

In many ways, art museums greatest strengths can be their failures. Art museums do quiet, meditative, restrained, and grown-up really well. These are good things for the people who already go to art museums. After all, those people like those things enough to go.

Why is attendance going down? 

Yet, museum attendance is going down.  Why? I’ll give you my take.  First, that core demographic (middle-aged women) is aging. And, those people aging into middle-age are finding other things to do. In other words, visitors are becoming a finite commodity. Unlike in previous generations, when there were fewer things to do, museums now have still competition to convert new patrons.

Notice how I didn’t say that art museums do art well. Art museums often prioritize themselves over their visitors. I love museums and even I sometimes feel like visiting the morgue might be a more jolly afternoon than some exhibitions. Sometimes I read the curatorial listings in the paper and wonder if the museums are playing a colossal game of stump the chump. And, then as if they have Jekyll and Hyde syndrome, those same institutions evoke the blockbuster card with the most stereotypical, saccharine, middle-age-lady-baiting exhibition that they can. What about the happy medium, friends? Sometimes you do that well, but only sometimes. Make this the given, instead of the occasional, and museums would automatically do better with attendance.

Art museums have also suffered for their stability. They have vast, expensive collections. They have authenticity in the hole. And, so, they have felt like they can focus on that and slack on the visitor experience. The truth is that the idea of authenticity has expanded. Who has read a book on Kindle and felt as if they didn’t read the REAL book? There is certainly the core audience who is amazed by a real Tanguy. But, there a bigger group of people who don’t care what That Guy’s real painting is. Museums can’t eschew focusing on experience. They don’t get a free pass for being repositories of the world’s history.

Museums aren’t changing fast enough. The world has changed pretty quickly in most people’s lifetimes. Other than those born after 2007, most humans remember a time before cell phones. Fast change is our normal. So, when museums tout changes that feel glacial, they show how incredibly out of step they are.

How can they stem the tide? 

Truthfully, monumental changes are needed. First, and foremost, culturally art museums have to accept that the status quo will not work. If art museums continue as they are, the audience decline will be precipitous.

Collections: 

Now, I will say that some museums are making changes and putting in certain efforts. A recent Ford Foundation grant, for example, funded some wonderful projects. Many of those efforts are focused on curatorial practices. That is a good start, on some level, as collection work is a core competency of museums. Curators have concentrated power in museums. In some ways, projects targeted at collection acquisition are focused on improving the means of production. Future collections will be less uniform, ideally, with these efforts.

Staff: 

But, those efforts might fall flat if they are not paired with many other changes. If you use the production model, even if the means of production improves, the company can still go under. Currently, museums run on a model of inequity, with portions of their staff working for considerably less than others. While in the short-term this model is fine, in the long-term this is inefficient for the field. Right now, the glut of young potential employees is high. Eventually, it will slow and then the cheap labor model will stop working.

Even if you aren’t worried about long-term sustainability, the museum staffing model is bad for visitors. Underpaid staff is not going to do their best no matter how much they love the art.

 

Visitors: 

Collection work will help museums maintain current audiences. Improving workplace equity will help them have a stable workforce, and therefore save money on retraining. This will allow them to increase time and money spent on visitor experience. Improving how people feel at the museum is the only way to increase audiences. To go back to the tweet I started with, people need to feel like the museum is enjoyable. They need to feel like you want them there as they are, not as you want them to be. In order to do this, the practice needs to align with the visitor’s needs (rather than the museums.) Without a concerted effort on making museums about visitors, we will eventually be without visitors.

The Strengths of Museums: What We Can Learn From Each Other

Last week, I had a wonderful amount of feedback on my post. I had compared two fairly different types of museums, Art and Science Museums, to see what they can learn from each other. Often, museums silo their practices within their own specialty. By looking over the wall at the successes of others, the whole field improves. I have compiled feedback from many to create this graphic. It is really just a start. I am sure there are so many more strengths. In fact, if you see missing ones, I would love to hear about it.

Also, what about the museums and installations that have already picked up ideas from other types of museums. I have scores of examples, but I will share one. One of the most moving art experiences my family had was at the Redford Gardens in Quebec at an international art show. My children are regular museum-goers (a familiar hazard for museum kids), but there was something amazing about art in natural space. The children were talking about form and line in ways that I hadn’t really ever observed in other museums. And, my children were not alone. Many other families were having similar experiences around us.

What are some of your favorite times where a museum has broken its usual paradigm and thereby improved the visitor experience?

What can museums learn from each other?

Scott Sayre, of the Corning Museum of Glass, once said, “Science Museums make complex ideas simple and art museums make simple ideas complex.” (Hear more from Scott here).

This comparison struck me as so incredibly powerful, not just for its succinctness, but also its insight. Both times of museums are two sides of one coin.  I have been mulling Scott’s observation around for a bit. If they are similar but different, what can they learn from the differences?

What have Art Museums got going for them?

Art museums develop interpretation in ways that encourage visitors to spend time with collections, by looking closely at the object. This invites people to go slowly and often along. The visual space is often sparse. Finally, the tone of the language is often geared for adults, with children’s/ family text being placed on ephemeral handouts.

In other words, Art Museums excel at the smart grown-up experience. In our society, there are few better examples of erudite and quiet.

What about the Science Museum folks?

Science museums embrace younger demographics with bold environments and active engagement. Their interpretation often asks questions and invites touching. Visitors learn in groups, either their families or non-family units. Visitors go to science museums to learn, but not necessarily for meditations or quiet.

So what?

Well, truthfully, all museums are seeing their attendance go down. In order to maintain and grow audiences, museums of all kinds should be looking to others to see what is working. Museums are after all evolved from a similar institution, as all the many dogs on earth are evolved from wolves.  This sharing across fields is certainly happening. Art museums have already seen the power of interactives, and environmental installations. Science museums could learn from art museums on ways to draw adults. But, this sharing could happen more often. The desire to share collections with visitors is greater than anything that separates us.

Work Better: Foster your Curiosity

Two weeks into the year, and statistically speaking, you are probably a failure. Most people who make new year’s resolutions break then before their holiday decorations are down. Why is this?

Start with the moment you make your plan. You focus on what is wrong in your life. You don’t exercise. You are not good at keeping up with email. You are judgmental. Then, you come up with a solution to this problem. In the heady moments of December, hopped up on holiday candy & cosseted with your holiday social set, you pick something that will make you better. You make a pact with yourself that you will do X to fix Y. And, then the cold dawn of the new year arrives, you find the old you keep showing up.

Most people find extrinsic motivation much more powerful than intrinsic motivation. For example, you might not write a journal every day religious, but you will certainly send your daily update email to your boss if they ask you. In the case of your resolutions, you are setting yourself up for challenges by relying solely on intrinsic motivation and a lack of consequences.

Moreover, the premise of resolutions is problematic. You are not broken. Resolutions basically focus on making something negative better. Resolutions are basically a system set-up with a fixed mindset.

A growth mindset is the belief that you can grow new skills. Rather than thinking you can’t draw, you can say that you will need to grow new drawing skills to feel more competent. Developing a growth mindset can be challenging for people who have long held negative feelings. For example, you might have spent a lifetime being told that you aren’t athletic. It’s hard to gain the momentum to find the exercise that makes you feel good (and athletic).

Curiosity is one of the best ways to transforming yourself from a fixed mindset. There is no way to fail at curiosity, as long as you try. There is no rubric. There is no wrong. Your resolutions are an attempt to move you from one point to another in your actions. Fostering creativity is about going from one unspeaking place to another unknowable space. Said differently, creativity is a way to allow your mind to move past the simple accrued actions of a fixed mindset.

Fostering curiosity is a way to allow your mind to wander past long-held ideas towards new ones. Regarding work, diversity of ideas is an essential way to find better solutions to your challenges. So, how can you foster curiosity? Try this simple exercise today.

  1. Grab a white sheet of paper.
  2. Turn on a song with lyrics that you know well.
  3. Write out the words that you hear in the lyrics.
  4. Once the song is over, turn off the music. Set the timer for 30 minutes.
  5. Now, look at the words. Let your mind think about the words and ideas. Write out all the first set of questions that come up.
  6. Then, look at those questions. What other questions come to mind?
  7. Keep going on this iterative question exercise until the timer goes off. You might feel stalled in the middle of the exercise. It is important to keep going past that point.

Once the time is up, you may look up answers to your questions. You don’t need to however. Curiosity is about wanting to know answers, but it isn’t always about finding the answer. Sometimes just asking the question is enough to change the way you think about questioning.

 

 

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 

How Best to Use Visuals

Visuals are incredibly powerful tools for teaching. But, you need to think about visuals alongside the text. Don’t make one element subsidiary to the other. Figure out what you need to get across and then develop a strategy for that idea. If you have ever written a label, you might have struggled on how to get across an incredibly difficult concept in words. For me, that challenge was explaining piece casting in words.

There is no fast and hard rule to do this well. I would guess you are using visuals much less than you could. I would guess engagement with ideas would go up if you used them better. But, don’t rely on my guess. Try some tactics. Tell your visitors that these are tests. Ask for feedback. Learn from your visitors and show your visitors that you are being responsive to their needs.

Here are some specific ways to use images. I could write them out solely in words, but that would do you a disservice.

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 Interpretation Ecosystem

Interpretation can be defined in many ways for museums, but the term is most often associated with labels.   In actuality, interpretation should be everything that is information about your collection. Ideally, you are thinking about a whole ecosystem of ideas from information without an intercessor, like a label, to information disseminated by people, like a class.

This graph uses the scale of the circle for the relative usage. The overlaps show an audience sector that uses multiples forms of interpretation. Notice that the smallest overlap by area is the one that uses all of the forms of interpretation.

Visitor feedback is an essential part of planning your strategy. Ideally, you will work through quantitative and qualitative data to model your content ecosystem. Your relative circles might be very different than the generalized one above. You might find that you have a smaller social media footprint but a larger one for classes. (This might be true if your audience skews older).

You need to balance visitor feedback with professional opinion.  Which stories do you feel you must share? Which ideas are most relevant to visitors? Which ideas will draw people to the object? Which ideas will inspire people?  Once you know what you want to offer visitors, and what visitors enjoy, you need to split your ideas by interpretation tool. Some tools can handle many ideas. Some do better with few ideas. The tools themselves will in part determine which ideas go where. Social media is a wonderful image driven field, so don’t shoe-horn long text in there. Catalogs can handle many ideas in a long narrative format.

Developing an interpretation strategy is challenging without a doubt. You need to work through legacy issues and smooth out the variety of cultures in your organizational work-flow.  But, with a strategy in place, in the long run, you will be able to develop content more efficiently.

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This is the sixth in a series of posts about considering Interpretation and Content to Meet Today’s Visitor’s Needs.

Previous Posts:

Are Museums Writing for Today’s Audience? Looking at the Changes in Literacy & Knowledge-Creation in Society

Labels in the World of Information Overload

Interpretation, Content, and the Use of Text in Museums

Visual Literacy and Importance of Imagery in Interpretation (Graphics/ Blog)

Engaging Interpretation