The Sweet Spot for Interpretation & Questions for the Whole Team

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

What causes interpersonal challenges in mounting spaces and installations?

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

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

 

Lucille Ball Eating GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

How can these challenges be mitigated?

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

 

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

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

Content Strategy Matrix for Developing Compelling Content (Graphic)

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

Thinking Systematically about Content / Interpretation in #Museums

 

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

Why Systematic Thinking for Content Creation?

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

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

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

How?

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

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

 

#AAM2018 Recap: Language, Collaboration, and Action

 

The Annual American Alliance Conference 2018 was hosted in toasty Phoenix. Many participants mentioned that this conference felt like a year to consider the basics. Rather than big bang projects, many presentations seemed to focus on maintenance, improvement, and thoughtfulness. As part of this introspection, many presentations put a fine focus on understanding the structures and processes of the museum world. Here is a roundup of some the biggest issues

Language: Communication between people has an inherent bias. Verbal communication often holds a bias towards those in power. For example, until very recently, many occupations were described in gendered terms (fireman, postman, councilman). Focusing on words might feel insignificant in the grand scheme of improving equity and inclusion. However, words are the basic building blocks of improving the socio-cultural state. Currently, language is built on broken blocks. Being thoughtful in the ways that you use language, avoiding biased language, for example, is like excavating and rebuilding our faulty communication tools.

Decolonialism/ Equity/ Inclusion:  Just as language might be the building blocks of inequity, colonialism is the architect of the inequity in society. The society we live in is a product of white Europeans expanding and conquering much of the planet, laying waste to the people and cultures resident there. This expansion/ decimation might have begun centuries ago, but the ramifications remain present today. Museum collections are particularly tangible artifacts of the colonial state. In order to truly embrace equity and inclusion, museums need to face and address the colonial nature of their work and collections, in a holistic and all-encompassing manner.

Collaboration/ Partnership: Museums are part of an ecosystem of organizations and institutions, large and small. Despite the breadth of possible collaborators, museums often act unilaterally in their planning and implementation of programs and exhibitions. Museums are ill-at-ease with ceding power, the central crux of good collaboration. Instead, museums often create collaborations in name only, which are basically perfunctory check-ins. With careful planning and dedicated time, museums can implement collaborations that will have positive lasting effects on their communities and their work. This type of collaboration, however, requires earnestness, truthfulness, transparency, and follow-through.

Risk: Risk-taking can be at the heart of a good collaboration. Museums are change-averse and yet always in the throes of change. This state means that staff needs to handle inadvertent change consistently, while not being able to take calculated risks (planned change). Fear of change is often centered around a few of power changes/ loss of power.  Conversely, ceding power is a learned skill not unlike risk-taking. Taking small risks, and reaping the benefits, can increase institutional aptitude for risk-taking.

Space: Improving anything is hard. It takes time, energy, money, and dedication. Ameliorating the state of museums can feel particularly draining, as we are a physically disparate field. (Rather than a physician with scores of peers in your region, museum workers often find their peers around the country/ world). As a result, people can feel isolated. Exhausted and isolated people cannot effectively make change. Museum workers must take care of themselves if they want to continue their impact on the field and their visitors. Self-care can take many forms, but in essence, means that you take some time to focus on yourself.

 

 

Emotions and Customer Experience

Customer/ Visitor Experience basically encompasses connection your visitor has with your organization from the signs on the street to the moments in the galleries. CX overarches both onsite and offsite; physical and digital. Experience is, therefore, a huge concept. As with all large concepts, considering constituent aspects.

Touchpoints:

The concrete elements that express the experience to customers/ visitors are a good place to start. These elements are where the ideas of the experience come to fruition, where theory becomes action. Here are some examples:

  • Discovery:
    • Word of Mouth
    • Social Media
    • Online
  • Research:
    • Social Media
    • Online
    • Front of Line Staff
  • Initiation:
    • Parking
    • Entrance
    • Front of Line Staff
    • Point of Sale
  • Consumption:
    • Galleries
    • Labels
    • Educators
    • Interactives
  • Review:
    • Word of Mouth
    • Social Media
    • Online

Reactions:

The touchpoints should spark reactions in visitors. These reactions aren’t just procedural. For example, a common museum touchpoint is a map that should help people get to places, at a bare minimum. But, the map should also communicate welcome and ease. People should feel comfortable.

Museums often focus on the procedural element to the touchpoints and therefore miss the mark with reactions. An effort needs to be placed on understanding that touchpoints evoke attitudinal (not just behavioral) reactions. Without careful consideration, those touchpoints will strike the wrong chord.

Actions:

Thinking big picture is a good improve the alignment of the touchpoints and the reactions. Start with the action you hope to evoke. So, for the map, for example, you are communicating welcome. You want people to feel ready and able. Certainly, you want them to get to each of the galleries. They won’t even want to get to your collection if they feel overwhelmed or turned off from the map.

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.

Making Change that Matters: Moving Beyond “Diversity” Projects Towards Systemic Change

 

Diversity, Inclusion and Equity can be implemented in a workplace in different ways.

Additive: One is additive, by adding new people and programs in the workplace. In this way, the organization hopes to infuse their existing world with new voices, as like adding spice to a bland meal. This approach has strengths, in that there is more variety being adding to the workplace. But, it puts an unnecessary onus on the marginalized people and programs being added to the institution to “fix” systemic problems.

Subtractive: Many organizations perceive a subtractive approach is more efficacious. For example, when positions come open, they purposeful hire a marginalized person (perhaps also proudly toutly their accomplishment). Unlike the additive method, this approach works under the operating auspices of the organization, i.e. not adding new positions or projects that could be cut eventually. Yet, this approach effectively creates some of the same problems as the additive approach. The marginalized person is still being asked to be the actor of transformation.

Systemic: Diversity and equity initiatives are basically about transforming culture. This requires understanding the many ways that the culture supports inequity and prejudice. Many of these issues are hiding in plain sight, interwoven into all the practices of the institution. Every element of the work of the institution could be imbued with problems. For diversity and inclusion initiatives to truly take hold, the institution needs to examine their practices. Here is where a consultant, or outside voice, can be essential. Just as people are often blind to their own faults, organizations often ignore the largest roadblocks to true diversity.

Systemic change, however, requires a commitment to being honest, thoughtful, and responsive. Unlike the additive and subtractive ways to implement diversity, systemic change is a process-based towards transformation. Processes take time and coordination between people, and ideally, non-hierarchical knowledge-sharing.  Seen broadly, systemic change requires a number of steps:

  1. Grow your team’s ideas and knowledge-base. Organizations, whatever the field, are often siloed knowledge networks. Fields bring people with similar training together, and then they generally partake in similar types of professional development. Change is about fostering difference. So, the staff needs to be able to understand and embrace difference.
  2. Examine the practices of the organization and attempt to understand facets that support or mask bias. This process will be slow and iterative.
  3. Rework those elements in a collaborative manner. This type of change needs to blend many (diverse) voices. They need to be diverse in all sort of ways (age, gender, education) in order to create a process that can handle diverse challenges.
  4. Iterate your new processes. Try out new processes, and then circle back with your teams to see how to improve them. Make sure everyone understands that processes need to grow and adapt so that they are willing to share feedback.

 

 

Reframing Diversity and Inclusion

Diversity and inclusion are now common words in organizational management. Before considering the actual practices, it might be useful to consider the meaning of each of the words.

Diversity:
: Diversity means variations. Genetic diversity, for example, in the human population creates a huge range of hair colors.

Sadly, diversity has become a coded word. Many people feel uncomfortable or defensive about talking about marginalized people. They use the phrase diversity to mean “adding X marginalized person or project.” When they say we need to increase diversity, they might mean that they need to add more people of color. In this way, many people are using diversity incorrectly. They don’t mean diversity in the sense of broad variation. Instead, they are unable to think beyond their narrow definitions of diversity. They see diversity too simply, this person for that person. But, diversity, actually means more of all kinds of people.


Inclusion is another word that is misused. Inclusion is much bigger than the word implies. On its surface, inclusion can seem simple. Including friends into your home can just be about giving them a call. But, in the organizational sense, you are not working with friends. You are working in a stratrified society. Inclusion are the transformational practices set forth to be able to make a diverse group of people feel included.


Community is another coded word that comes into play with diversity and inclusion initiatives. Community is a challenging word in a different way than diversity and inclusion. Community can be used differently by different people depending on where they stand in society. For example, a marginalized person might be using the term to mean their in-group of marginalized people. They are using the word to denote their shared culture, in other words, their community. However, when an organization uses that word, community should not be used to mask an inherent discomfort with naming a specific marginalized community. For example, many organizations have “community engagement” endeavors. These endeavors are aimed at low-wealth, minority patrons. However, rather than directly stating these points, the organization hides behind the term “community.”

This type of linguistic simplification and obfuscation can seem innocuous. However, they are often like canaries, signaling a work culture that is dangerously unable to truly implement diversity and inclusion work.  On Thursday, we will talk about the ways to do diversity and inclusion work well.

A Museum Professional’s Oath for Better Visitor Interactions

 

Museums serve visitors, both on-site and off. Connecting with others is a grave responsibility, a relationship that can change people and organizations. Funders love engagement, like education and community engagement. Museums seek funding for programs that connect them to others, often raising millions for operating support. This work is essential, basically making the museums’ missions manifest. But, there are times when museums need to make good choices.

In my career, I have learned the hard way that funding and allocations are tinged with ethical considerations. For example, the museum professional is asking for support to staff a project that will help thousands of people for a certain term. As an organization, you are putting off making a decision. After the term, you will need to decide how Peter will be robbed to keep Paul working. Non-profits, like museums, can feel like a daily shell game. And, instead of playing for nickels, you are playing for people’s minds. Museum work is not frivolous–it is for the benefit of every person who connects with the institution.

These millions of people deserve to know that they are being treated in the most ethical manner.  Museums often preference pragmatism to stark ethics. You make choices about allocations, pushing pennies to one project to support a team-member effectively robbing another audience. You hope to do it right, but sometimes the fog obscures the true north.

But, there is a simple goal, a cardinal direction of museum work. That our institutions should place collections, knowledge, and people in the forefront of their concerns. Everything we do needs to support these three goals equally. We as institutions have collections and knowledge down, but the visitors are often given short-shrift.  But, people deserve some essential ethical considerations. Just as doctors take an  to cause no harm, museum professionals have an ethical challenge to center their visitors:

Oath of Ethics in Museum W0rk

As a museum professional, I hereby promise that:

1.I will do no harm to the people we are hoping to serve.

2.I will not make assumptions about our patrons. We will ask them.

3.I will not just drop people when grant periods end.

4.I will treat all patrons like people.

5.I will not assume skin color defines interests, actions, or motivations.

6.I will not assume skin color connects people.

7.I will respect everyone, including ourselves. We will act in ways that feel respectful.

8.I will speak kindly, thoughtfully, and considerately. And, I will learn how to speak this way.

9.I will focus on people.