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.

Focusing on Self-Care is Good for Business

I had the pleasure of doing the keynote talk for the Pennsylvania Museums Association conference in April, 2018. Below is a summary of my remarks.

Summary:

  1. We all need to take care of ourselves
  2. As managers, you particularly need to take care of yourself
  3. You also need to advocate for your staff and to help them find space

Self-care is an umbrella term for the types of activities that people use to maintain the necessary stability required to accomplish all the hard work of life. While self-care varies by person, it is necessary for every individual. Everyone needs to have moments when they are focused on themselves.

Non-profit work can be exhausting. Employees work long hours for little money. Burnout is high. Management jobs are often only garnered by leaving your organization (and potentially your city). People do this work because they believe in the mission. Organizations win, as they get dedicated employees for a bargain-rate. The employees are so dedicated, partly because their job has been conflated with their identity.

Self-care Strategies:

Self-care can feel hard to jam into a brimming schedule. But, self-care can fit into a negligible moment. One calming breath won’t destroy your schedule but will help you get through the next hard experience.

There are many different ways to try out self-care. For example, I wrote a few articles about creative mindfulness, basically meditative drawing. I paired these articles with posts about productivity. After all, if you are exhausted, you can’t even begin to think about self-care.

Whatever form your self-care takes, the key is transforming your life in simple ways that afford more mental space. Physical space can often be tied to mental space. A streamlined work surface makes finding tools easier and therefore accomplishing tasks easier, and finally affords employees more time for themselves.

Managing and Self-Care:

Self-determined goals are often meaningful.  And, self-care cannot be foisted on people. When an organization requires that their staff exercises in order to decrease insurance rates, the HR office usually gets to field plenty of grumbles and complaints. Managers, therefore, should avoid pushing self-care on their staff.

Instead, managers need to find substantive ways to support the staff in their self-care. First, they need to model self-care. I say this as someone who came late to self-care. I needed to become an expert in burnout to become an evangelist of self-care. Managers need to be honest about their own struggles with burnout and share their strategies to counteract these feelings. Sharing challenges is not a sign of weakness. A good leader is a human who is worth following, flaws and all; a boss is a person who you have to work for.

Managers are responsible for the care and feeding of departments. With the never-ending demands of growth and excellence, managers often place their energy on the feeding elements of running their departments. But, care is an equally important element in an expansion. Departments grown by a burned-out staff can be shaky and subpar. Therefore, it is incumbent on managers to ensure that staff has the opportunity and structures to implement their self-care strategies. Part of this is encouraging downtime and relaxing experiences during the workday. While Americans are notorious for their long hours, Swedish workplaces understand the need for downtime. Coffee hour, or fika, is a time-honored tradition in most Swedish office.

Keeping people in the non-profit workforce is hard, and plenty of younger people are willing to fill open positions. Museums are losing trained middle-level staff. Putting the staff’s sanity about the job is one of the best ways for nonprofits of all kinds, including museums, to ensure a strong future.

Resources:

Creative Mindfulness: The Buzzy Brain

Productivity: Idea Trees

Creative Mindfulness: To Tidy or Not to Tidy

Productivity: Baseline Check

Productivity: In Defense of Breaks

Self Care: Dr. Jekyll & Mister Hyde in the Technology Age

Self-Care: 5 Ways to Cope With Setbacks

Productivity: Your Relationship with Time

(Online Course) Self-Care For Mission-Driven Professionals

What if I’m Burned Out? Counteracting Workplace Burnout

Trust the Revolution

Time and Space Self-Care Plan

 

Alpine Institute’s 2018 #TheStateofRace Symposium

The Aspen Institute had their annual State of Race Symposium last week. Journalist Juan Williams moderated two panels: one about politics and a second about hate speech. As Senior Executive Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer Comcast Corporation, David Cohen suggested in his opening remarks, the symposium aimed to ignite discussion about race in America today.

The Findings

While social media journalists, including myself, documented the remarks on Twitter, overall the remarks highlighted the tension in our nation. We are a nation formed through racial strife, and these roots crack the very firmament of our contemporary society. Discussants to various degrees discussed the current President in relation to white supremacy. Normalcy has been transformed with the white supremacy becoming a public norm, rather than an open secret. The acceptance/ visibility of white supremacy can be seen as a result of other transformations in society, namely stagnating job opportunities and the diversification of the knowledge production and the rise of social media.

The remarks of the symposium painted a picture of American Society in 2018 as a churning cultural clash between the youngest generation of voters and the oldest one. These two groups are drastically different, coming of age in oppositional eras. The oldest sector of our society is the baby boomers, born in a period of unprecedented prosperity. The youngest voters were raised in the greatest period of insecurity in nearly a century. While the oldest sector of society might have earned a lifestyle that they hope to maintain, the youngest voters do not even imagine or hope to live that way.

The response to this cultural tumult has been multifold, according to the Aspen Institute speakers. Older voters were fueled by fire to vote against diversity, globalism, and tolerance. A small sector of the population, say less than 2000 people, decided to generate an enormous about of hate online, according to the Twitter, diversity officer. Women came out to fix the government, standing up to run for office in unprecedented numbers. Asians are expressing their political rights and highlighting the heterogeneity of the community. People of color and marginalized people are fighting tooth and nail to get into the rooms that matter, in every arena, and some are succeeding. Overall, marginalized people are pushing  to make a change while the traditional seats of power are attempting to defend the status quo.

Extrapolating from the Symposium

Chuck Rocha, Strategist and President of Solidarity Strategies, pointed out an important divergence in media and knowledge consumption amongst the oldest and youngest voters. Older people still get their news by watching television. Older people use the platform to help determine the value of the speaker. The youngest voters are indiscriminate in their knowledge conduits but very discriminating in the sources. Young voters value the speaker, not the platform.

Rocha’s observation is huge for all knowledge producers (media, education, politicians alike.) Solely sharing that information over traditional channels will garner a small, aging, but important and wealthy, demographic.  Therefore, knowledge needs to be produced and disseminated in old ways AND new ones. Knowledge needs to be shared by valued “experts” as well as by influencers.

I was struck how America, as described by the presenters at #stateofrace, was very much in line with the comments from Culture Track describing the cultural habits of Americans. According to Culture Track, younger adults are brand-agnostic, experience seekers, looking for peer-nominated experts, unlike older adults who build relationships with institutions often based on perceived expertise.

In other words, be it government, politics, or culture, older people are more often tied to traditional institutions and reticent to/ ignorant of change. Younger adults offer fealty to few institutions, if not outright seeking the overturn of said institutions.

What does this mean for the State of Race and Culture?  

Race means something very different for older voters. These voters believed that they stamped out racism by holding protest signs in the 1960s and quoting MLK on their Facebook pages. These same voters understood that race is something to avoid discussing for fear of exposing the ugly truths that they feel. The oldest voters startle when they hear the phrase “white supremacist” but also feel uncomfortable saying the word “black.” The oldest voters were raised in an America of assimilation and as such do not have the skills to notice or handle their inherent bias.

The youngest voters see race, as well as gender for that matter, as a complicated spectrum. Diversity, inclusion, and access are familiar words, though the concepts are not always easy for them to put into action. Race is hard to discuss, not for lack of skills, but due to the disconnect between their understanding and the way race is expressed in conventional sources.

Understandings of race are so drastically divergent, and the oldest voters are maintaining control of many traditional sources. For example, the Alpine Institute State of Race symposium had no speaker that represented the youngest voters (likely no speaker under 35).

Conclusion

In reflecting on the symposium, I kept imagining two planets currently moving at different trajectories in fairly independent orbits, just at the moment before the collision. We are at that moment when the atmospheres and moons are crashing into each other, with the previous calmness being pierced by a shocking, surprising racket that is a harbinger of greater problems. In this scenario, both planets could be destroyed, one could survive, or both could survive (one as a subservient moon).

Similarly, the deep-seated differences in our culture between age groups, expressed in race and every other facet of society, might be undoing of us, bring our demise. Or, and ideally, we will find a completely different configuration of how we do things. Conversations like the State of Race symposium are the only way for our society to chart a successful course towards a better society and avoid catastrophic options.

Guiding Questions to Think about Bias in Museums (by functional area)

At AAM 2018, there was a wonderful panel led by Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko about Decolonization. While all the speakers were wonderful, I was particularly struck by Jaclyn Roessel’s remarks about indigenizing museums as an act of transforming the current power structure. Overall, the conversation underscored the importance of systematic and cataclysmic change in transforming the colonialism inherent in museums. This process is one that requires work and the ceding of power to people outside the museum world. Cinnamon et al stressed the importance of collective action and community-organized change.

Walking out of that conversation, I was struck at how much time and energy is required of community groups when they help museums transform. How can museums ensure that they are meeting this sacrifice in good faith? Museum teams need to prepare themselves for tough conversations.

The first step is to find ways to subvert the natural human inclination towards defensiveness. Criticism of any kind can feel like an attack. But, in a society where race is a taboo topic, criticism can become debilitating. Learning to tamp down defensiveness, therefore, can be an incredibly important means of laying a foundation for growth. (Incidentally, Beyond Defensiveness, our book, and our online course can be useful tools to help on the path to dealing with bias).

Once you are personally positioned to be self-critical about bias, you need to examine your work. While each field has a slightly different manifestation of bias, overall, investigating inherent challenges requires thinking about who is missing and why. Making ideas explicit requires seeing what you have been missing, potentially for your whole career. Think of it as an intellectual optical illusion; once seen cannot be forgotten.

An Example

Take this example. Recently, New York writer Jerry Saltz posted a tweet about women artists.

The sentiment was important, as was the fact that it was said by an influencer.  Yet, the tweet had an important omission. The tweet never called out the reason that women were not taken seriously as artists. While this could be seen as simply an issue of “elegant” verbal framing, this was also a way that language hides the actual instigators of inequity.  Exposing such omissions are important as bias cannot be dealt with if it remains invisible.

How do you see the unseen?

The pernicious effects of colonialism and bias thrive on silence and denial. People need to be willing to look at every process with a critical eye. Every element of work needs to be investigated. Choice points need to be considered. Here is a great moment where data and visualizations can help draw conclusions. Data can help make concrete that which is hidden. For example, what percentage of works in an audiotour are of male artists or artists of color? What percentage of artworks have long-form labels? What is the demographic make-up of the audience? What is the demographic make-up of the photographs in the marketing? (Above is a graphic to offer some questions by functional area.)

Doing this type of hard work internally is essential before joining forces with community partners. Those partners have put themselves out to join you on your journey. Don’t they deserve a travel partners who is strong enough to make it down this long road?

#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.

 

 

6 Tips for Making the Most of a Conference #AAM2018

Conferences are a huge expenditure of time and money.  They are held in huge, impersonal buildings, peopled by hundreds and hundreds of unfamiliar people. The pressure to do conference right can feel overwhelming. But, first and foremost, there is no one “right” way do attending conferences.  You need to find a good balance between engaging with ideas, meeting people, and finding space for yourself. Each person has to find their own best way to handle conferences.  How do you find your own best way to handle conferences? Here are some tips to help you do that. (Follow the tips, and then notice what feels right).

Plan Ahead: Have some clear objectives in mind before you go. For example, think about a few big topics you know you want to think about. Search the program ahead of time for those topics, and pick a few for your calendar.

Be flexible: The best-laid plans are actually the ones with room to bend. Other than your few must-see talks, allow yourself chances to be swept up in the zeitgeist of the conference. You will hear people talking about talks; try a few of those.

Share: Be open with people and allow them to be open with you. Elevators, hallways, coffee lines are great chance to make a quick bit of connection with a colleague.

Document: Make sure to take notes, however, you naturally do. Twitter stream, hand-written, typed. Whatever you already do, keep doing that. You will be taking in a number of ideas, and you don’t want to be stressed about forgetting them. But, also keep your phone in hand. Sometimes it is easier to snap a shot of ppt slides than to take down notes. Also, remember, you won’t catch everything. Be okay with that. After all, you will be able to find plenty of notes on Twitter and SlideShare.

Relax: Conferences are exhausting. You are on all the time. Even the most extroverted person can feel tired. Find your own ways to get a little break. I always have a half-read book in my kindle app. Any time I need a little me time, it’s there in my phone.

Enjoy: Conferences are work, sure. But they are also a chance to be with scores of people with similar values and interests. Luxuriate in that.

 

 

Museum Customer Experience

Customer? 

Museums create exhibitions and installations for people. We most often describe those people as visitors. The word visitor has some strengths. A visitor is invited and wanted. But, a visit is transitory and not-participatory. There are so many other words that we could use. There might not be an ideal word, but for the sake of argument, let’s think about the word customer. This is a word that might feel at odds with museum culture. Customer implies a transaction and a transfer of a commodity; both of which are not usually the focus of museum culture (though do occur in museums). But, customer is a useful concept, as this is the word used in service transactions. This service arrangement is central to capitalist culture and has a refined customer culture. The norms of being a customer are inherent in almost every monetary exchange in the U.S. (and most capitalist countries). Customers are being who are treated well and who gets to determine what well means. They are, after all, always right.

Stores and restaurants spend real money on getting the customer culture right. They can’t afford to get it wrong. Design and service are honed to ensure clarity and conformance to brand. People walk into a place of business and know what they do. You don’t walk into a burger shop and wonder if they sell dresses.

Museums, on the other hand, eschew some aspects of customer culture. Whereas almost every public building makes finding the bathroom easy, many museums prefer to be coy. Museums are notorious for their poor wayfinding, no bright arrows for museums. Museums often use volunteers instead of staff to communicate their message.

Good Experiences

I’ve been to hundreds of museums. Thanks to years of dealing with patrons, I am highly attuned to hot-button challenges both from the side of the patrons and the front line staff. I can see the pain points and the failures. And, the challenge is that visitors might not be able to articulate the points of challenge, but they can certainly feel those problems.

Signage is a perennial problem, and a topic for a standalone post, but just think of the negative reaction a person has when the bathroom sign is too small to be seen. Their momentary (and visceral) negativity will be felt through the rest of their experience and will spill into their word of mouth reviews. In fact, everything that happens onsite effects the visitors feeling, because visitors are used to a customer culture that centers them.

With the many checks and balances in museums and the legislative pace of decision-making, often the most effective way to improve customer service is to train front of house staff to be more friendly. This decision is, of course, not free. Training takes time. As front of house staff is the lowest paid, they are often the most transient portions of the staff. But, the investment is huge. One good experience with a person can easily erase bad experiences with inanimate items (signs, maps, etc).

In Practice

One of the best experiences I have ever had with staff happened recently at MassMOCA. This museum is a bit of a pilgrimage site, nestled in the Berkshires. The enormous campus hosts contemporary art that can be esoteric and inaccessible. So, this is a museum that hosts people who really want to be there.

On a random Monday morning, we arrived two elementary aged girls in tow. Children make many museums nervous as if those erratic beings are just waiting to attack. My girls are used to museums and guards, so are okay when guards are a bit brusque. We were all totally surprised when the guard leaned down to their height to tell them which artworks could be touched. When they stood there a bit dumbstruck, he even cajoled them to interact. Every person who worked there communicated that they wanted us to be there. I cannot understate this. When the staff exudes welcome, the visitors/ customers feel positive about your institution.

That first experience was then translated throughout the institution. Staff throughout the organization smiled and helped. They welcomed, encouraged, and intuited, all the while remaining respectful. They were able to hang out at hand rather than hover creepily.

The impact of human experiences on visitors/ customers is huge. We happily bought lunch and knick-knacks, because we felt positive. We stayed longer because we felt comfortable. We told friends with families to make a stop there. (And, I wrote this blog post :>)

While that sign might give you bad vibes, a good experience with a person will be a concrete moment that visitors will remember. These are the kinds of experiences that are returned exponentially in word of mouth and repeat visitorship.

Improving Customer Experience

Front of House plays into the customer experience at the research, initiation, and consumption phases. Each of those points of interactions is chances to foster positivity.  But, without thought, organizations end up with erratic service. The heterogeneous siloing of roles (visitor experience and education) often means that customer service feels fragmented. Foremost, museums need to think about customer service systemically across their departments as well onsite/offsite.  Visitors/ customers don’t care that people work in different departments. They see all the people working at the museum as being on the same team. The plan needs to be produced with authentic input from people who actually work with visitors. (This plan cannot be top down if it is to be successful). Once this plan is in place, the service goals and benchmarks need to be communicated to the whole organization. Then people need to be trained and commended. Staff who are unhappy will not perform in positive ways. Finally, the customer experience plan needs to be iterative and evolving. Doing better for visitors/ customers requires trying to do better.

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.

 

The Cost of Museum Work

Consider these scenarios:

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

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

Being a Museum Professional

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

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

The Effect on the Field

The Museum Hiring Culture:

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