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.

Centering Empathy in your Visitor-Practice in Museums

Empathy is one of those things that is hard to verbalize and even harder to feel. If sympathy is when you say “I know how you feel” then empathy is when you connect with someone’s pain to not be able to say anything at all.  Empathy is hard to gain, requires time, and involves work. You don’t gain empathy by looking onto something in a disconnected manner. You gain empathy by linking with others in real, authentic ways. These connections return enormous gains.

Think of your visitor. You no longer think of them as one monolith. You start to differentiate the mass into individuals. You start to wonder what they would think, not in an abstract way, but in a solvable way.  You move from inaction to action.

How do you gain such powers?

Pretty simple. Walk out of your office. Sit where your visitors sit. (Didn’t put a bench there? Well, then you think about sitting where your visitors think about sitting.) Talk to people. Be careful–this is not an evaluation that I am talking about. Don’t take this sample size of a handful as

Talk to people. Be careful–this is not an evaluation that I am talking about. Don’t take this sample size of a handful as an anecdotal study.  Just get to know your visitors as people. Let them be actual people rather than abstract numbers.

Then go back to the problems that face you. Think of those people that you have been getting to know.  Try to solve these problems for them.

Oh, and ask facilities to put an extra bench in the galleries.

Its Not the Destination OR Journey Mapping for Museums

 

Touchpoints

Visitor experience is everyone’s job, not just those people who have “visitor” or “experience” in their title. Picture your visitor. What is the first thing that comes to mind? What are they doing? Buying a ticket? Standing in your gallery? Reading your labels. These are the types of touchpoints that are the focus of many museum professionals. However, you are missing important elements of your visitor’s experience. Much of the make and break comes at the moments in between.

Step back for a moment, think about going to the grocery store. You bought vegetables, milk, and bread. You also bought six things that were not on your list. Is that what you remembered? Or did you also remember the old lady who cut you off on the way to the corn? And, the sample guy trying to convince you that “pea-based false meat” is pretty good. Then there was your third-grade teacher standing in the lunch meat aisle. Many of your memories are about the moments in between destinations. As the adage extolls, it’s the journey not the destination.

Pathway Planning

Focusing on the journey requires changing focus from end-point planning, where you focus your energy on the galleries, turning instead to pathways. This shift requires focusing on the visitor’s needs and actions. In doing this, the energy shifts focus from the institution, often placing its decision-making heft in gallery-based decisions, to the visitor, whose experience is often born of the spaces in between the parking lot to the gallery. Mapping out people’s paths is called Journey Mapping, in User Experience Design talk. But, basically, you visualize what people do and why they do it.

Why use Journey Mapping?

As another old adage goes, don’t judge until you walk a mile in his shoes.  The saying, trite as it is, points to the role of understanding in creating a Journey Map. In other words, an ideal pathway planning process requires purpose and empathy to be foregrounded. Instead of just the nodes, or the point of getting somewhere, you spend your energy on every moment in between.  When you do that you learn new insights into your visitors’ decision-making processes. You also learn when serendipity and/ poor planning cause reactions. In other words, you get insight into why people react to your spaces.  In this way, journey mapping helps break through status quo planning, i.e. doing something as its always been done.

How do you Journey Map?

  1. Just as with fiction, journey maps should draw on what you know. So, start by observing patrons. But, then use that as the base to creating your map.
  2. A journey map is not a generic map. The journey map starts with a person. Specificity is essential. This is not like google maps. Instead, it’s more than the map your best friend gives you with asides about great signs and tips about places you will get lost. When doing journey maps, take a point of view. Keep that person in mind as you work.
  3. Next go for story. Imagine this person coming to your organization. Why are they there? What do they want out of it? That will be the motivation. Write out a two-sentence story of their motivations and goals, like the plot of their visit.
  4. The map is sort of the arc of your story, with all the tangents and eddies that your character might need to be authentic. Make sure to think out the path and the stops. Be specific about the character’s motivation and well as their process.
  5. You might imagine that you start by drawing. But, the best journey maps are visualizations of an experience that you have thoroughly planned. They are not random. So, waiting to draw allows you to be purposeful.

Even if you choose to hire someone to do your journey maps, understanding the process is incredibly useful. It helps you understand why maps are useful. They help you understand your visitor’s holistically. Often museum staff prioritize decisions without having a thorough understanding of their visitor. Tools like journey maps help you center your visitor in your process in ways that draw on process and empathy.