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.

—-

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

 

When Content is Global : Digital Interpretation

At the core, museums offer the interpretation to offer people connections to collections. Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s director, says, “What we really want to do is humanize history.” The delivery method matters on one key level. Technology allows for vast off-site interpretation. But, even when visitors are not in the museum,  as Karen Franscona, Boston Museum of Fine Arts Director of Public Relations,  suggests interpretation still seeks “to explain things and expose our works of art to people who may have never come to our museum.”

Why use Technology-delivered Interpretation? 

People use technology. 88 percent of Americans used the Internet, and therefore a form of technology, in 2016.  Technology has allowed museums to become global as never before. Now your audience has grown from those who came onsite to those your find your presence (by choice or by surprise). Half of the visitors to the website are not planning a visit, for example. The museum’s largest audience sector might be those who don’t ever visit onsite.

Technology is a utility, not unlike electricity. Just as you use electricity to turn on the light in a classroom or to power your ticketing computers, technology fuels multiple functions of the museum–and multiple parts of our visitors’ lives.  They use it to buy plane tickets, read the news, and talk to friends. Technology is not for X, it’s for X,Y,Z.   Museums need to meet various needs equally well.

The content on technology has to be as good as anywhere else in the organization if not better. Your audience is particularly knowledgeable about bad content on technology. They use it all the time. Social media can’t be solely a sales channel. That would be the equivalent of a newspaper only being coupon circulars.  Interactives can’t just be bells and whistles.

So, start with the idea and the audience.Before we think a little about interpretation for technology, we might go back to the issues of writing labels. Museums create content for multiple audiences.  These audiences often have disparate needs.

 

Technology allows you to meet the differentiated needs of visitors better than ever.  You can produce content that combines visuals and text in a sophisticated manner.  Technology can be updated and more quickly relevant. You can meet respond to current events with incredible speed and specificity.

Each of these users can tap into multiple and differentiated engagements with your collection. Digital allows for better differentiation by format for the audience. Personalization is what people want. The visit to the site may be the reason that they are accessing technology-delivered interpretation or the impetus for using your off-site technology resources. They may never visit. Your technology, particularly social media, might reach those who otherwise would never even thinking about your museum.

In other words, technology interpretation can serve your existing audience better or draw new audiences. The numbers can be astonishing.  Art Institute of Chicago has about 1.5 million onsite visitors and 706000 on social media. LACMA 1.2 Million onsite and 2 million on social media platforms.

Technology-based interpretation writers, therefore, might have scores more consumers of their ideas than label writers. (Usually, these aren’t the same person). They are all likely using the same source information derived from the curator, say a catalog or curatorial write-up.

How should you use technology-delivered interpretation? 

  • Create purpose-built content for deployment. Just as you wouldn’t cut the catalog entry from the book to use as a label, don’t use the same text on the web as in social.  Remember people consume ideas differently when reading technology. Understand that people’s needs can be different even for the same technology tool. For example,  visitors to the website have many needs, so that are different than onsite visitors (such as planning your visit.)
  • Create connect that extends relationships.  Find ways that encourage people to check back. Show the installation process in phases. Be transparent about testing technology. Make the premature birth of an animal a national obsession. Let technology help your organization be honest with visitors.
  • Use each technology tool to its best ability. For example, social media is an engagement tool. Jonas Heide Smith shares in his Museums and the Web paper that social media can maximize reach but also add new levels of engagement within the institution and with new audiences. Think of your own experiences. Do you use your public Instagram to ask your mom to bring you dinner? (Also, don’t ask your mom to bring you dinner.)  And, then research numbers on what the general population is doing on different platforms.
  • Embrace content co-creation. People are already using technology to make and share content, mostly pictures. Allow them to do so, and then applaud them for it by amplifying their reach through shares on your channels. For example, social media, with “Take-overs” events allow museums to change the balance of power in content creation.
  • Don’t assume. Test! Much has been made about the youthful demographics on technology. But, don’t be the museum that assumes that ‘all the kids want X.’ Social media particularly allows you to try many different approaches fairly affordably. You might find that your funny meme is particularly popular with the older folks–they have smartphones too.
  • Be Game but Don’t Play Games:  Humor is incredibly challenging in print. Think of all those lame jokes that don’t come off in texts from your dad. Museums can certainly speak in the vernacular of the media but do it thoughtfully. Everyone knows when you are pandering. There are scores of examples of brands doing so, so wrong on social. Don’t be those brands.
  • Invest.  Right now, there are inherent time and money disparities in the field in general, but definitely in content creation. Curators spend years on catalogs and labels and social media needs to turn it around in minutes for pennies on the dollar. Without completely going into the issues with museum hierarchies, let’s focus on digital content. Make a plan that you can afford. Choose the platform that you can staff. And, then do that really well.

Many people have written about this much better than I, so here is also a sampling:

———-

This is the fifth 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

 

Museums are not Neutral — Nothing is #MuseumsarenotNeutral

 

As a “first year” in college, I sat in a bright room that belied the imposing gothic facades that populated campus.  My professor asked us to raise our hands if we were rational beings. We all raised our hands. He asked us to keep our hands up if we were not biased. He then asked us to keep our hands up if we are able to turn a lens on culture critically, without bias. We all maintained our smiles with our hands thrust in the air.  He then said that every hand should be down. No human, he explained, could be outside society.

We all have these moments that break into our excepted vision of the universe. These are revelations which change everything.  I never again could look at anything within society as being anything but socially/ culturally constructed. Nothing is free of culture.  Think of this metaphor. Everything in the world is culture; and we cannot step outside it into space, as there is no air there.

So, when I saw this debate on Twitter about my colleague/ friends at Portland Art Museum’s exhibition involving sharing ideas with visitors, I was almost incredulous. The socially constructed nature of everything, including museums, is something that has suffused all my work. It occurred to me that this might be an issue of nomenclature. Political is a  word that has become tainted with additional meaning. In its original sense, it means to wade into the ideas that are part of society. Partisan, on the other hand, is to take sides. People might not understand that nothing is neutral; everything is within society.

Of course, the idea that museums are not neutral is not solely an academic one. Money is involved, and as such, complications follow. Museums are 501(c)3s or non-profits. As such, there are many rules as to how they should behave. But, those laws do not prevent museums from sharing ideas or empowering visitors to make choices. In fact, those laws support museums in doing their part to help visitors be informed.  Those laws help create a structure denoting exactly how far museums can go. Truthfully, when people like Portland do anything, they are way ahead of others, and so it looks as if they have crossed a line. But, what they have done is stand up to do what’s right within the law. If this seems shocking, you might instead wonder why more museums aren’t joining the charge.

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

Early man likely shared stories orally. These stories would eventually become text. But, images probably came before written text. While the exact purpose of these visuals remains unclear, certainly one can assume that the original audience was able to garner meaning from looking at the images.

This is not surprising if you think of life. From the moment most people open their ideas to the moment they start a dream, our brains are inundated with visual imagery. As babies, we can read images long before text.  Everyone, on some level, has an incipient level of visual literacy, or the ability to connect images to socially-coded meaning.

The caveman in us was very adept at understanding visual stimulate—their lives depended on it. In fact, our brains are faster at making sense of visual stimuli. We can make sense of visual information in an estimated 1/10 a second.  Another study indicates that we can make sense of visuals 60,000 times faster than making sense of a text.

What changes have occurred in the last decade, or so?

The success of visual content is predicted on this natural predisposition. Our society went from a fairly slow rate of visual production until the invention of the printing press, at which time we could speed things up considerably. The explosion of affordable, mass-produced imagery must have been astonishing. Cameras, television, and the internet saw concomitant jumps in the number of images produced and shared. But, the last few years have seen an unprecedented increase. While an estimated 3.8 trillion photos were taken in all of from 1939 until mid-2011, 1 trillion photos were taken in 2015 alone.

There are a number of drivers of this growth. Data is cheaper. Smartphones and tablets have a very high diffusion in society. Visuals are ever cheaper to print, like in print on demand book.

And, the appetite seems to be growing. Video, for example, is expanding (though its success is arguable). From the content producer end, video makes sense. Forrester Research suggests that one minute of video is worth 1.8 million words. Most social media apps see a major uptick in engagement when images are attached. Images drive nearly 60% of all digital impressions.

Why use visuals? Why think harder about visual interpretation?

Basically, we do better at visual interpretation, because this is something our visitors value. Period. But, if you want to drill down, visuals are good at:

  • Showing context of objects
  • Showing interrelationship between subsidiary parts
  • Giving authenticity to ideas
  • Showing relative scale of items
  • Explicating complex systems
  • Showing step by step information
  • Drawing attention

What needs to change in museums?

First, we need to understand that increasing visuals in our interpretation is in no way devaluing our collections. We can maintain the authenticity of the originals, and the joy of looking at the real dinosaur bone, say, while still increasing the rigor and quality of visual interpretation.

In just the last couple years, social media has indicated the importance of visuals to drive growth, like the expanding market of Instagram or the dominance of FacebookGoogle is setting some real money into visual search. Already 1.2 Billion images are uploaded to Google Photo every day.  Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are low-text immersive technologies predicated on images. The future uses of AR and VR remain enticing. All in all, advances of technology support image-first  or highly image-based content.

The continued growth in image-based technology is driven by people’s consumption. While the general populace consumes more image-delivered content, our curators, and other staff, i.e. those who determine the tone of communication, are trained largely using text and testing their knowledge with text. Therefore, we naturally use text to describe images, but we aren’t predisposed to use visuals to define images/ visual collections. We are also likely much higher consumers of text than the average visitor.

Additionally, our visual communication is often disconnected to that which our visitors consume other places.  Our visitors have very sophisticated visual literacy. They decode visual in marketing, often visuals that stand alone or have little subsidiary text.  They see 5,000 branded images every day. They get 11 million bits of information every second.

In other words, our visitors are basically immersed in visual decode constantly. Even with these visually-literate consumers, we use visuals sparingly as a field, or rather, we use text as the primary. Some fields are better at using visuals, like science and natural history museums. This might be in part due to their training, where the illustration is a long-standing element of learning and teaching.

I remember when I was working on the content for Gallery One, my most striking lesson was the way that imagery was the best way to show context. Images are how we see context in our own life, so of course they are the most nature way to show context from history lives.  I could talk about fibula until I was blue in the face or I could just show you this image:

Overall, we still remain text first. And, this is a major problem.  We need to make sure to think of visuals and text as an interpretation package. Our visitors are using visual and text together to make sense of our collections; our interpretation doesn’t alway help support this. Therefore, we need to be strategic in the ways that we use this.  We need to make sure to think of visuals and text together, without either being subsidiary to the other.

Remember, in the world outside museums, images are definitely on equal footing with images, if not central in most of the content that our visitors consume. Sharing content that resonates with the norms of society is ultimately the way for museums to remain relevant.

 

I placed the visual summary here. Reflect on your experience accessing this information visually as compared to the textual approach above:

—–

This is the fourth 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

 

Engaging Interpretation (Blog/ Graphic)

Truly inclusive museums center visitors in their practice. In order to do this, they make sure that the idea that they offer through interpretation balance the desires and needs of museums and visitors. Ideally, they include elements of the collection object and its history in ways that are relevant to the visitor.

The graphic, however, is the most generalized state for interpretation. In practice, parts of this diagram will increase in relative scale. For example, for most objects, the donor portion is much smaller than the relevancy.  How do you measure this? Well, go back to your goal–you want to center visitors. Look at the ideas from the visitor’s lens. (A future post will share more about thinking of interpretation holistically.)

 

So how do you do this? Start by thinking about the object. That object is so much all in one package no matter what the collection–art or science. As an interpreter, you are the person who decides what stories are foregrounded. But, in order to do that, you need to be thoughtful about the choices you make. Think of the object as a locus of fractal layers of ideas. There are so many elements that come together.

Step through all those hidden layers from the object’s beginning to now.  You could start with tangible, like its surface texture,  but also think about the layers that are intangible. Also, you can consider the object and the culture around the object.  And, then be thoughtful about how you explicate and excavate those layers for your visitors. Many of those layers, like the use, have changed over time, so they are not obvious to visitors. Some of these elements might be also invisible now, like the context. You can bring the invisible past into people’s present in relevant ways.

 

My classic example is the fibula.  As you think about developing the interpretation of this object, break out every layer of an object, and be thoughtful about what elements that you choose to use in your interpretation.  Certainly, this was not just a functional object, it was also a marker of wealth and gender.   Compare these two statements: “The fibula is used to hold up a garment.” or “Wealthy men in early Britain used finely wrought fibula to fasten their garments.  The latter statement adds important layers of knowledge connecting the object’s present to facets of its past. 

But, think of the power you have. You can help people journey into ideas and concepts that are apparently invisible.  You have the chance to transform something inert into a transformational tool. Take up that charge.

 


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

Previous Posts:

Inclusive Interpretation Tips 

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

Interpretation, Content, and the Use of Text in Museums

Interpretation is a word used in the museum situation to denote the function of creating information about collections. Most often this sector deals with text read on walls, like labels and panels. The term for me isn’t quite right. It sounds like you are translating between audiences, implying the need for an intercessor. I do like that the word sounds like a process, in opposition to the word used for this function in the non-museum world, content. The latter word has some benefits. I know content is a made up word, but it is also the made-up word that most of the world knows. Search for content development in Google, and you will see how much currency “content” has in society.

In each of these, you are offering information about your collection. In every one people are connect to your organization. Every piece of information on this chart is a type of information. And the patron is looking for learning on some level, but the learning needs to be tailored to the media.

All these issues of nomenclature aside,  interpretation, for lack of a better term, is much more than labels. Ideally, you should come up with a strategy for communicating about your collection broadly. When you do that, think about the many ways you are sharing ideas. This graphic just breaks out the common textual forms of interpretation. Ideally, you would look at all the forms of interpretation within your ecosystem. (Thinking about this ecosystem will be the topic of an upcoming post. So check back.)

 

——-

This is the second 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

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

Evolution of Knowledge Acquisition

When our visitors walk into their museums, they will have already consumed a great deal of information and fast at a rate of, on average, 23 words per second.  Over the course of a day, people read an average 105,000 words.  They walk into your museum, only to use text to find the bathroom, learn about your collection, and find their way to the exit.  But, are museums textual practices keeping up with the literacy changes of our visitors?

Quick History of Knowledge Acquisition

  • Move from oral to print increases sphere of influence
  • Mass production is partnered with mass consumption of text
  • Technology exponentially increases not only production of but also access to text

When it comes to social change, there are usually two camps: it was better before and it is now wondrous. In terms of knowledge sharing, you might think that we are living in the moment before the mass extinction of books, just waiting for one more meteor from the tech sphere. You might instead think that we are finally in the great democratic (small d) age of knowledge. Either way, it might be useful to step down the historical path of literacy and knowledge sharing.

Knowledge in the early days was transmitted orally. Writing systems were implemented,  effectively separating the words from the speaker/ writing and thereby making ideas highly mobile. Early writing survives on pots and tablets.  And, while mobile, these writing documents were handmade and heavy. Pity the horse asked to transport a set of texts over a hill.

Scrolls helped with the weight of things. Even the most ornery, old mule could take one scroll to the next city-state. But, the codex, or spined-book, changed things. These stackable communication tools could be filled with dissertations and novelizations.  Books were then further improved in as mass media tools with the onset of printing.

Printing changed knowledge forever. Ideas whizzed out of machines in broadsheets, newspapers, pamphlets, posters, and books. Knowledge was now mass media, multi-format, and myriad. Finally, technology took up the charge from printing. Early website information was present in certain situations, like from desktop computers in homes, (remember that iconic buzz of the landline connection?) Smartphones, like the iPhone launched in 2007, meant that knowledge was in your pocket or hand all the time. The smartphone allowed you to get blogs, tweets, feeds, and all the other Web 2.0 tools continuously and continually.

Web 2.0 & Social Media: Faster, Shorter, and MORE

  • User-generated/ change in authority structure
  • High-volume text consumption
  • Writing and reading styles have changed

Web 2.0 with its social media tools made knowledge-work a global activity, hobby, or obsession, depending on where you stand. Everyone is writing all the time. This user-generated content has changed the power structures of knowledge. Users (i.e. readers) are making text to disseminate their ideas. Authority became dispersed being partially displaced from institutions to individuals. This dissemination of authority can be seen as a flowering of democratic knowledge-work or, alternately, an erosion of quality in knowledge-work. While this debate is beyond the topic at hand, those acquiring knowledge are basically reading on the front-line of this authority debate. Readers confront this question with every text that they read. For every like or retweet, they are endorsing the authority of the writer.

And, they are making these assessments in record time. Knowledge is being made faster than ever. An average 1.2 million words are added to Twitter every minute. This is 18 Billion words every day. Almost four TRILLION words every month. And, that is on a single platform. Add all the text your mom is writing about you on Facebook, the captions on Instagram, the food blogs, the comments on those food blogs about the problems with the recipes, the comments on FB posts… You get the point. You live the point. Text inundates readers daily. Rather than being overwhelmed, many are willingly accessing and responding to this text. People are reading more, even as they are reading fewer books. Longform literary texts, with 1000 pages to get to the denouement, has a smaller audience, but short bites are on the rise. In other words, rather than being on the decline, literacy is shifting.

Social media and Web 2.0 texts have changed readers. They expect short and sweet. That said, the long text doesn’t immediately turn them off. They are skimmers. You don’t think so? With the changes in readers, texts and writing are changing.  Look at this text. Its constructed for the skimmers amongst us. There are bold headings, like road signs, for the speeding readers. For the super-fast reader, there will be some quick bullets at the end.  So, why am I putting in all this text, then? b/c you are all looking for something different. In order word, long-form texts are being created to support the diversity of audiences and their differential interests. (Also, age-old norms are changing. Abbreviations are being the norm.)

Transformations in Knowledge-seeking

  • Knowledge seeking is easier than ever
  • Knowledge resources are wide, deep, diverse, broad, and ever-present
  • Knowledge seeking is often broad rather than deep

Along with literacy shifts, Web 2.0 tools have transformed knowledge-seeking. When was the last time you flipped through an encyclopedia to figure out the name for that line that separates two dates in a range? (En-dash, by the way). Now, as a museum/ knowledge worker, you are probably more predisposed to use physical/ analog texts to find answers, but even knowledge-workers Google things. This shift is important in the museum setting. Your viewers know how to look up textual facts. They can find out where Rembrandt was from if they care. They know how to figure out the definition of tempera, and where to watch a video of egg tempera being made. Facts are available to everyone. And, while you might see yourself as the purveyor of the real, verifiable facts, your visitors are also very good at finding answers (and they might have a different idea about what a verifiable fact is).  Your visitors, if motivated, can find any fact they need, but this increased ability to fact-find is not necessarily matched with a concomitant growth in critical reasoning.

The flip-side of this phenomena is that for every museum collection there is a web niche. So, there are knowledge-makers online creating the counterpart to everything. You have a collection of decorative objects, including Wedgewood salt shakers. Look up salt and pepper shakers. You will see an amazing world of savory dec arts. You are a natural history museum with skulls and bugs. Well, I assure you that you have scores of Instagram accounts that would pair nicely with your collection. In other words, you aren’t the only one out there. This phenomenon can be taken in two ways by museums, as an erosion of uniqueness or alternately, and more positively, as an expansion of their community.

What are the implications for Museums?

  • The short version: People are reading more, finding facts all the time, and being inundated with text. Museums need to understand these changes to make better text.

As a society, we are not the readers we were in 2007. This is not a value judgment. This is not about caring less about collection objects. This is about idea dissemination. People are getting info in a different way.

Before you attempt to bemoan the diminished state of knowledge today. Every generation has had some type of knowledge acquisition transition. And, those who are living through these changes are often completely unaware when cognition slowly changes accordingly.

You really only notice the giant jumps, like going back to a long-ago time period. Even the most scholarly of us might find listening to an oration of the Mahabharata for 12 hours or so a little overwhelming. You are not inherently dumber or smarter than the original audience that could sit through that Indian tale of duty. We are trained by society to acquire information. Information that is transmitted in the social vernacular will be more easily acquired. Said differently, people learn as society has trained them to; teach differently or they might not learn.

 

How do we give museum visitors what they want and need in terms of text? 

Begin by ensuring that the text is suitable for the delivery method. Social media often is entertaining, short, and timely whereas labels are site-specific, informative, and evergreen.

With our visitors becoming savvy information consumers, we need to spend more time and research money on evolving the all our textual information so that our knowledge-ecosystem works for our visitors. We need to be strategic about ideas and knowledge-dissemination. We need to work holistically on the text as a form of access and inclusion. It is imperative, as a field, that we spend time researching labels and think about innovating at that most basic element of our knowledge-ecosystem. If we don’t, our visitors, best case, will just Google it, or worse, stop coming.

Museums have a Problem with Fun (Data)

Museums need visitors. Anyone who flips through an annual report or glances on a website can attest to that fact. But, how do you get them there?

You entice them, of course. But, how do you do that? I can share how I did that. When I used to run programs, I would try to show “fun” through the publicity photos and in the description of the activities. But, saying something was fun always seemed a signal that the experience was anything but. If you need to say is fun, it probably really isn’t.

How do Americans define fun?

This is a challenging question. Ask your best friend, and you might find you differ in your responses. But, looking at spending trends helps form a picture of how society, as a whole, uses their well-earned leisure money and helps us begin to define fun.

Leisure can be defined as an activity that you choose to do for enjoyment.

Since the 1960’s people are working less, and spending almost 7 extra hours a week on leisure.  Similarly, people are spending more money now than they were 50 years ago on leisure. People spend nearly $2500 annually on leisure compared with $850 in 1960.  In other words, leisure is a growth proposition.

Americans spend real money in order to engage in leisure. For example, they spent 100 Billion dollars on sporting-related leisure in 2016.   They spend more than a third of their discretionary income on restaurants.  In 2015, Americans spent an average of $46 per year on arts and culture activities.

According to the American Time Use Survey, on any given weekend (in descending order of time spent), people watch tv, socialize, play sports, relax and think, read, play on the computer, and play games. The range is from 200 minutes of television watching to under 10 for game playing.  (Visual breakdowns offer some stark depictions of the relative scale of each activity.)

Expectedly, perhaps, but the childless have more time for leisure. And, despite education-level,  people do some type of leisure activity every day. In other words, everyone is doing some regularly that’s fun.

Drilling down a bit, what makes these activities enjoyable?

There’s variation, as well, there is variation in people. Some are of these activities are individual and others are collective. Some are within the home and some are outside. Some are affordable and others have great costs. In other words, fun has a great deal of variation. Fun purveyors might only fit in one of these niches, like books which are solitary. But, many fall into various niches.

What connects these activities?   On the whole, they are active and engaging. But, they are also activities where the norms and expectations are clear. Once you learn to read, you don’t need someone to help you engage with a book.  Once you make a friend, you don’t need a list of rules on how to talk to them. Going out to a movie needs a ticket, but not a docent/ intercessor. (See Graphics at the end for details on each of these activities.)

What does this have to do with museums? 

At a time in history where people have more time for leisure, museums attendance is in decline. This negative growth is really a global phenomenon. In the UK, BBC did a study that found that major art museums (National Gallery and Tate) lost 20% of their British audience in a five-year period up to 2014. The NEA found that museum attendance dropped in the US over last decade. 

The competition is steep. People can find plenty of fun at home. As the New York Times wrote in a 2016 article, staying home is the new going out.  More than 50 percent of American’s regularly order food in. Television-watching is the most common leisure activity.

In other words, there is a threshold that must be met to entice people out of their houses. And, this where we circle back to the idea of fun. Fun is about being with people and feeling comfortable doing it.

LaPlacaCohen recently released a report, CultureTrack about Arts and Culture participation. The number one motivator  for arts and culture participation, a staggering 81%, was “fun.”   Over one-third (37%) didn’t see art museums as a cultural experience. (How many art museum people would it as a cultural experience). The Culture Track also helps develop a picture on what types of experiences draw people. And what did they think was fun? They enjoyed experiences that were outside of traditional institutions, like public art.  They see cultural experiences as interactive & collective. They want to be engaged rather than just receiving information.

People want leisure that doesn’t require onboarding, that isn’t going to make them feel out of place, and that isn’t hard. They want experiences that engage through content that is real and interesting. In other words, culture shouldn’t be hard; it should be fun.

Why do museums need to work so hard to get people to feel included in their spaces? 

Recently, I was chatting with a friend who works at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. This is a museum that has really made an effort to model and act fun in their spaces and programs. She was sharing her successes at serving as an ambassador to community members. She mentioned that the best community ambassador has a certain amount of built-in obsolescence. Once you get people connected to the museum, they don’t need you anymore.  On that score she is right. And, I have no doubt that she does a great job.

But, I asked her, and I ask you, what other leisure experience has ambassadors actively trying to get people to see the space as theirs. I mean–is the NFL really working super hard to get people to see that sitting in freezing temperatures, drinking beer with your friends, and yelling at men in tights is fun?

What are we doing wrong? 

One big thing is that we fundamentally don’t project “fun”. Think of the ways that we think of our spaces and our exhibition programs. We start with considering scholarly attributes and see how the idea blends the existing museum norms. We don’t start with the visitor.

Now, exhibition folks out there will say that they try to put in a few blockbusters every year. In other words, we look back at things that worked in our paradigms that drew visitors to get more of those same visitors.

This disconnection deals with some fundamental challenges:

  • Museums people, personally, often have a rarified or specialized sense of “fun”
  • Museums often see fun at odds with scholarship
  • Museums see “fun” as being for children
  • Museum spaces are meant to serve as both individual and social spaces; the fun norms can be drastically different and oppositional
  • Museums don’t make their rules and norms clear so people don’t know how to have fun there
  • Museums focus on content-transmission rather than experiences

How can museums be more fun? 

This is a billion dollar question (ask the sporting industry). If you manage this, you won’t be crossing your fingers on the blockbusters. You will be drawing new people who are willing to put on pants and leave their couch. You get new people. You will find those people that you are always wondering about (the non-museum-goers.)

And as LaPlacaCohen notes, our potential visitors are “necessitating a reassessment of experiences and services offered.”

You need to:

  • First, let’s not fake it. Don’t write fun in any add you write for your museum.
  • Spend time understanding what people actually this is fun. This can be going to Yayoi Kusuma but it can also be sitting down with friends. Don’t use yourself as the ruler for fun. Really look into other industries.
  • Use the lens of fun as a way to measure the relative value of programs.
  • Don’t demean play and fun in your own planning and thinking. Stop using the phrase, just a play space or just for people who want fun.
  • Center play in your own practice. Make fun part of your work. People can tell when you are bored.

(Also, why Americans? What about international readers? Well, friends, fun is relative and cultural. While somethings go across many societies, like alcohol, others are highly culture-specific. For example, never seen anyone from England posting about going to their alma mater’s home-coming football came while painted in their team’s colors head to toe.)

Addendum: Breakout on Leisure Activities.

 

 

Bill of Rights for Museum Visitors

Museum visitors have rights.

Museums are storage lockers without visitors. And, visitors have certain rights.

 

Visitors have:

The right to wander at will,

The right to feel smart,

And the right to demand NOT to be made to feel stupid.

 

They have the right to spend hours

or look at ONE thing and leave.

 

They have the right to be near the art, to touch the interactive, to look really close at the butterfly wing—when those collection objects are under glass.

When they are not under glass, they have the right to look pretty close at collection objects. Remember, museums are inviting them in. Trust them!

 

They have the right to go “backward” in exhibitions (as long as they don’t impinge on the rights of other visitors).

They have the right to miss the tour.

They have the right to take the tour and walk away, just because.

They have the right to share their feelings about the tour.

 

They have the right to disagree, to not care, or to agree.

 

They have the right to hate what we have on the walls.

 

They have the right to just listen, to ask, to share, to question.

Again, they have the right to question.

They have the right to ask and question when their story isn’t included.

They have the right to notice when museums are doing it wrong.

 

They have the right to see the museum space as a place to relax,

to learn,

to walk when it’s cold outside,

to meet a friend and to go for a drink,

to go for a drink,

to meet a date,

to avoid a date,

to get a bite to eat,

to hear a concert,

to find a quiet place to relax,

to read a book,

to ignore all the museum’s darn labels,

to listen to EVERY stop on the audiotour,

to learn about stuff they forgot from school,

to bring their kids,

to feel,

to run from kids.

 

They have the right to not be followed, to not be started at, to not be questioned by guards.

They have the right to feel trusted.

For more on trust in museums, see my blog post, Trust the Revolution, which includes my MuseumNext talk by the same name or watch the video below:

Trust the Revolution from MuseumNext on Vimeo.

Trust the Revolution

Museums need a revolution of trust.

The word trust is a common one in the museum field, embedded in mission statements and uttered by venerable directors.  However, in both instances, museums use the word most commonly in terms of their holdings.  Museums keep collections in trust for people.  Spend a moment considering that language. Museums hold important artifacts of history, human or natural, for us.  In other words, like a trust fund, the collection is kept safe and protected, for the next generation of beneficiaries.  This is, of course, commendable. Collections are often the body of museums. However, collections are not the soul of museums—ideas are.  These ideas are brought to collections by people: curators, educators, and visitors, amongst others.  Here lies the crux of so many challenges in this sector.  Trust is something that museums offer their collections, but don’t offer much of their staff or their visitors.  Without that trust, the people involved in museums cannot bring their best ideas to the fore, leaving collections poorly activated.

The issue of trust is at the center of many of the internal problems of museums. Executive staff, busy with responsibility, often cosset themselves away from visitors leaving lower level staff charged with attempting to translate the real concerns of patrons to the higher echelons. Such trickle up relationships can work if lower level staff are afforded trust by their superiors. Trust could be expressed through face time, decision-making power, salary scale, and/or credit for work.

The dearth of trust in museums extends to their relationships with visitors. Museums often do not express trust in visitors in their spatial and cultural norms.  Instead of trust, we project fear to visitors.  We fear them with our collections. Think of the deportment of guards. These museum professionals have the greatest face time with our visitors; yet they are often trained to project a restrained, if not punitive, attitude.

The lack of trust in our visitors is also expressed in the way that collections are interpreted. Permanent collection galleries use labels with often illegibly small font and inscrutable text. Exhibitions are allowed greater latitude in general, due to their temporary nature. In other words, in general, visitor-centered interpretive and design norms can only occur in museums in the places that do not create permanent change to the culture.  While some museums solicit visitor feedback, the change to our field is incremental. Said differently, we do not trust the change our visitors might advocate. Sure, we might have an exhibition that has a Post-it note talkbacks. But, this type of change is barely noticeable to a visitor who has lived through the whirlwind of technological changes that are the essence of contemporary society.  Herein is a major factor of fear; visitors might want something that is totally different than what museums do.

The lack of trust offered to staff and visitors have massive ramifications for our field.  Staff burnout and turnover is a problem.  In fields where external jobs have better pay, like technology and marketing,  staff leave and take their field-knowledge. In other fields, like education, staff stagnate and wither. The staffing challenges then are translated into visitor experiences that do not embody trust.  Visitors in turn often feel uncomfortable in our spaces; they can tell we don’t trust them.  Visitors move into other leisure experiences.

In the end, if our collections are held in trust. then our visitors are our constituents, a relationship not unlike a voter to an elected representative. And, just as a senator who has broken his trust with his voters can be voted out, people vote with their actions in the museum sphere.  Our attendance is decreasing. In other words, increasingly people are choosing not to trust us with their time. Visitorship is already skewed demographically towards wealth and whiteness, and rather than diversifying our visitors, those wary of being profiled are less likely to visit.

So, what are we going to do to earn their trust?  We need to change our whole culture, from the way we treat our staff to the way we treat our visitors.  We need to face our fears of change. We need to trust that the people who want to participate in our culture (from lower level staff to general visitors) have a personal stake in our success.  We need to express our trust with systemic change, rather than peripheral amendments.

Without these fundamental changes in the structure of museums, currently focusing trust and transparency on a small set of our culture (the executive team and board), the work we do is less than optimum.  We can’t speak of political movements and yet remain immune to them.  A trust-based model means that more people share the decision-making, but then that also means more people share the ownership. This trust revolution, and with its concomitant, and required, decrease in fear of change, would transform museums from places that hold collections in trust for people to places that trust people with collections.

So How Will We Do This? 

First, you need to think about trust itself. Trust is a moment of vulnerability and two-way connection. Trust takes honesty and courage. You lose something certainly, power particularly. But, you also gain, empathy and connectedness.  In the end, you find yourself amongst people who feel a connection to you. You are in other words insulated by their trust in you.

In terms of museums, there are three keys: trust collections, visitors, and staff.  We are going to focus on the people because we are really good at trusting the collection.

Let’s start with Visitor

When of the biggest challenges of trust come when the visitor meets the collection. Many objects cannot be handled. Explain why or better show why touching objects can often lead damaging those pieces. They know that we don’t trust them. They can tell. Visitors don’t feel comfortable in our spaces, and our spaces are generally almost purposefully uncomfortable. Don’t think so? Just look for a comfortable seat in a museum gallery.

So what are some ways we can turn this culture of distrust around?

  1. Share don’t tell. (Be open in your interpretation. Allow people to come to their own conclusions.)
  2. Make the visitor a co-steward in the welfare of the collection. (Think of the difference between snapping, “don’t touch” and mentioning “we need to keep this safe.”)
  3. Believe they can handle difficult topics. (Ignorance of a certain topic is not stupidity in general. They were smart enough to enter the museum :>)
  4. Be open to multiple ways that visitors may approach the collection.
  5. Be more thoughtful in the ways your guards connect to visitors. (Empower guards to be kind.)
  6. Make your spaces less inscrutable. (Don’t make them feel lost.)

And now Staff

Museums are, however, inherently hierarchical. So, trust can be parsed out by where the other person stands in relation to you.

To your superiors

  1. Find ways to share what you really think. (Test the waters will small moments to see if you can trust them.)
  2. Be sociable. (Take this one slowly. Feel them out.)
  3. Work hard and show your work. (Let them know you don’t magic your deliverables.)
  4. Question kindly. (Don’t just disagree so you can. And, ask in ways that don’t sound personal.)
  5. Don’t say anything about them that you wouldn’t say to them. (That said, find a way to let out your negative feelings, say journaling, telling spouse, voodoo doll (?))

To your peers

  1. Share your ideas. (They might steal them. But, you have more ideas).
  2. Don’t personalize. (It’s not all about you.)
  3. Help them. (Open doors. Share Pens. Pick up the slack.)
  4. Be on their team, even if you are in different divisions. (Listen, hear, and care.)

To your staff or those junior to you:

Trust in one’s staff begins with valuing the staff. Trust goes both ways. Here are concrete steps in developing trust in your workspace. Because there is a power differential between you and your staff they need to know that they can trust you.

Before you can trust your staff, you must set the conditions for a work culture that allows for or encourages trust.

  1. Train the staff to be good at their job. (Training takes time, money and effort, so make sure you plan for that).
  2. Set expectations then allow them to operate within those expectations. (Tell them what success looks like. If you don’t know, you are not leading.)
  3. Don’t micro-manage (If you really know how to do their job better; take that job instead).
  4. Voice concerns early before they fester. (Don’t tell them 6 months after they pissed you off. Also, why are you still angry after 6 months? You are the one who did nothing.)
  5. Give staff clear/ concise goals. (What do you want? They are not mind-readers.)
  6. Believe they know the best way to accomplish their job. (Don’t worry. They got this).
  7. Be transparent about decisions made that affect your staff. (I assure you they will guess on your motivations. Why waste their time?)
  8. Be honest about why you are asking for staff’s opinions. (is it for a show? Or do you really want to hear their opinion? Be honest if you don’t.)
  9. Know names. Use them. (They are human. Treat them that way.)  
  10. Be social. Be kind. (Don’t treat them as your inferiors, unless you want inferior work from them.)

Yourself

Finally, and most importantly, show yourself trust. The more you can trust others with your true self, the more you will grow in the field. Know that you are doing your best. If you feel like you are not, then move yourself to the place, mentally, where you can.

What next?

If each person in the field picked four ways to add more trust in our field, four simple concrete items, we would start a revolution.  It’s a simple numbers game.  4 times everyone in this field, of 1.6 million more moments of trust. Over time, there would be an exponential shift in the culture of the field, in the way that visitors feel, and in the way that museums are perceived. The collections, a core defining feature, would remain as trusted as ever. But, instead of being part just housed in buildings, they would be surrounded by people who feel as trusted as the collections.

This is post is my summary of my MuseumNext USA talk in Portland. Thanks to them (Jim and Kala) for letting me share my ideas on that large stage.  To hear the talk, catch the video.