Museum Education 2018 Trend Forecast

Last month, I put a call out on Twitter for museum professionals to share their predictions for 2018. Before we get into the trends, it is useful to share the respondents’ collective vision of museums and the field.

What is a museum?

I invited participants to share their definition of a museum in 140 words (The survey was produced before #280characters). The themes of the responses could be categorized into three big themes:

  1. Object-oriented: Respondents used works like objects, conservation, and loan.
  2. Social Space: Words like institution and space were often paired with words like gather and community.
  3. Learning focused: The responses described the broadest sense of education, including scholarship, experiences, and interprets.

What is museum education?

 

Respondents were asked to give five words that defined museum education. The terms were overwhelmingly positive, with only 1/3 having negative connotations. Most of the positive words related to the output of museum educator and the experiences of visitors. There was a broad span of terms, including words that describe specific activities like workshops and terms that describe methodological approaches like engaging. Some of the terms might connect to values held by practitioners, like flexible, creative, dynamic. A few respondents shared words that might indicate changes in the field like transforming and evolving.

The negative and ambiguous terms related to the working in the field. Some words like comfortable and complex can be seen as positive or negative. Other words like undervalued and frustrating are clearly negative. These words often allude to the feelings of workers, feeling undervalued, underpaid, and stifled. Other negative words focus on the programs of museums and how they impact museum education like siloed, unchanged, and racially white.

Museum Education 2018 Trendcasting

Respondents were shared many issues about visitors, both generally and also specifically on K12. They shared their interest in developing programs that were relevant and experiential. The other major theme in responses were about social justice and access, as well as the training needed to be able to create equitable programming.  Above, one can see the relative importance of the major themes, and below one can see the nuance in the responses.

When seen together, museum education in 2018 would like to offer visitors a high-quality, inclusive experiences but feel real challenges in order to do so like funding and training. Educators are thinking about how to evolve to meet the learning needs of visitors. They are interested in finding ways to include narrative and responsive experiences to engage visitors. But, they are also thoughtful about the fact that diversity, access, equity need to be planned and supported.

The respondents discussed this tension between goals and funds in their trendcasting for 2022. The above graphic shows the aggregate of all of the long-form responses about museum education in 2022.In other words, museum educators do not foresee that the problems in the field will improve in the next five years. Digital and technology were big themes for the future, particularly AI. There were real concerns about balancing technology and collections-based experiences. There were also real fears about challenges for the future in terms of funding and staffing.  

 

Stepping up a level, looking at the projected themes helps clarify the biggest issues projected for 2022. Not surprisingly, there was a greater disparity in themes for the 2022 trends, as forecasting so far out is more challenging.  That said, notice the certain issues like disaster readiness appear on the 2022 themes list but were absent from the 2018 list.

Conclusion

The educators had clear expectations for 2018. Equity and access was a major theme, along with the perennial issues of schools and visitor experiences. However, funding and workplace challenges were equally important. Taken together, one can see a distinct tension between expectations and possibilities. Museum educators want to do more but are already strapped. In many ways, the 2022 projections indicate that there is a sense that the big challenges of funding and equity/access might not be addressed.

So, how as a field can we thwart the predictions for museum education 2022?

  • How can we address the issues of frustration in the field?
  • How we move our work into a supported position in our organizations?
  • What types of funding changes or expectation changes are needed?
  • How can we make real changes with equity and access so that five years from now we are looking at broader audiences?

What are your thoughts on the trends for 2018 or futureproofing the field for 2022?

 

Also, if you would like to look at the raw data, drop me a line at seema@brilliantideastudio.com 

How Best to Use Visuals

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

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

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

Instagram and the Evolution of Museums (Blog/ Graphic)

Museums might be said to be on the higher-end of the leisure world. They have cache. If not, imagine the situation associated with the phrase, “We are at the museum today.” Now imagine being in the situation to be able to say, “we are at an amusement park right now.” Both are perfectly enjoyable, no doubt. But, the former is more rarified than the latter. Amusement parks bear their mission in their name–an outdoor space to bring joy. Museums, on the other hand, as a word is somewhat out of step with the current usage. The word denotes these sites as places for people to encounter the muses.  While certainly, no museum is actively discouraging convening with the muses, such spiritual-intellectual pursuits are just one of a range of experiences that the contemporary museum hopes to foster. Unlike amusement park, with only a century or so of history, museums have 400 of history. In the word of whip-fast brand pivots, museums change is glacial, but they have continued to evolve. This evolution includes slowly but surely fostering social media use by patrons about collections. These moments when the glacial change becomes apparent can confuse people. Every once in a while, the media bemoans changes to museums like the use of social in the galleries. But, hard as it is to believe, change has been part of museum culture since it began.

Change in Museums

Early museums began in Europe.  A museum, as described in the Ephraim Chambers Cyclopædia of 1750, is “any place set apart as a repository for things that have some immediate relation to the arts, or to the muses”, while a repository was “a store-house or place where things are laid-up, and kept.” In other words, early museums were set apart from warehouses by the act of curating meaningful arrangements. Museums were a place “to instruct the mind and sow the seeds of Virtue” as noted by Charles Willson Peale founder of the Philadelphia Museum in 1784. These spaces were meant to be visited by the well-heeled they have the proper disposition and pre-knowledge to appreciate the nuance of museum installations.  Museums were in keeping with a host of amateur activities pursued by gentlemen during their leisure.  Contemplation and conversation over objects were fun for a certain class of men.

 

The idea of museums spread quickly along the same networks that supported the colonialism of the age. By the early 19th century, museums were found on all inhabited continents. But, by this time, museums had already changed substantively. Rather than being for a select group of educated men, museums were now seen as a place for the general public.  Additionally, visitors were allowed to self-guide through museums rather than taking a prescribed tour of the galleries.  With the inclusion of all types of people, museums began to foreground their educational nature. In their first century, they could be assured an audience with the necessary foundations to understand the collection.  But, in the 19th century, as James Smithson, founder of the Smithsonian, said museums are “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Museums were a way to share ideas with anyone.

Zoo Sign with Definitions

The 20th century saw a massive growth of museums.  These museums maintained and augmented their educational value. Most museums developed departments tasked with education. Spaces began to reflect this educational charge. Education was diversifying in the real world and museums met this challenge accordingly. But, museums also began to offer more entertaining ways to explore collections, like classes for children and lectures for adults.

The first decades of the 21st century have seen an exponential rise in the number of museums. Museums are no longer solely about collections but also ideas. More importantly, museums are fighting against many leisure spaces for visitors’ attention. Museum has met this challenge in innovative ways. I, myself, happily spent a career developing family guides, technology content, role-playing games, and social media campaigns. (I am the middle person in the picture :>)

 

Museums Now

Museums in many ways have returned to the roots. Rather than doing it wrong, visitors are taking up the charge of the early founders. People are enlightened by the muse in our galleries, taking and sharing photographs. Now, the question is how do we continue with the 19th-century ideal that museums should be for the broad public? Firstly, by encouraging and supporting the action of taking photographs. Social allows visitors to engage with the best intentions of museums in the language of our time. 

The Interpretation Ecosystem

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Posts:

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

Labels in the World of Information Overload

Interpretation, Content, and the Use of Text in Museums

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

Engaging Interpretation

 

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:

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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:

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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.)

 

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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

Labels in the World of Information Overload (Blog / Graphics )

  • From the museum point of view, they help audience connect to collections
  • Visitors differ in their needs by sector.
  • Designing one label for multiple audiences is impossible
  • Visitor evaluation will help evolve labels to meet new needs
  • Digital content needs to be a priority and purpose-built

While text abounds in museums, the most ubiquitous element of text, the label, is a particularly challenging element in terms of literacy shifts. The label is more likely to be read than any other text in an installation.

Having written literally hundreds and hundreds of labels in my tenure, I have spent a great deal of time thinking of these little bits of text. I spent time trying to cram everything in. I have then moved to pulling out 2-3 good ideas. I have played with the literary labels, descriptive labels, and humorous labels. I have cried about labels (well, not cried, but moaned certainly.)

In earlier eras, when text and knowledge were not omnipresent, labels could offer a single lens look at the art. In the age before phones, labels had little competition as purveyors of knowledge. But, now, visitors are standing next to that bit of vinyl choosing to read your text or use their phone to get information.

What are labels for?

From the point of view of the museum, the label helps the visitor know what the object is and then gain at least one access point. R.J. Loomis suggested that labels are a way to “bridge the knowledge gap” in a 1983 article about the Denver Art Museum (cited here).

Labels are the voice of the museum when a person isn’t standing there. A good interpretation plan, and planner, can do well to consider the idea questions to answer. In my time in museums, we have made several positive changes. Interpretation folks and some curators are doing better at writing in an accessible way, above the vernacular but below the scholarly. We are doing better at using ideas to make people feel smart while not using highfalutin language that makes them feel dumb. We are doing better at helping the whole field work on labels that work for visitors, from the V&A’s label guidelines or the Te Papa’s extensive label and exhibition guidelines.  

In my nearly two decades of label-writing, I have held many truths sacred. For example, I have always used Beverly Serrell’s ten commandments including make it short and sweet and start with a visual reference as benchmarks for my writing.  Like most label writers, I have wanted to find a way to take an idea that I feel is important about the object and make it into something relevant for the visitor.

Each collection object is really a locus of ideas.  The label writer (curator or educator) tries to choose a lens that would increase the appreciation of the object but can be explained in 100 words or less. This is an awesome task, taken in the original sense of the word. You have so many facets you might choose. Even in exhibition labels, where you have a meta-narrative to frame your writing, you have so many possible items to choose as the subject of your label. 

In the best-case scenarios, you, label writer, do your best. You use your professional experience. You also think about your audience. But, here in lies a major challenge for museums. We have different audiences for our labels. Our donors, other scholars and power users of museums have very different needs than our general audiences. Here is a situation where the disparity in the audience needs to be considered when developing a solution.

What is the role of the label from the point of the visitor?

First and foremost, they are looking for a label. The word itself is useful. Outside a museum when you label something, you mark that object with a textual description. Imagine finding a sealed box in your home with the label, “Boxes of this type were well-known in previous period as containing toxic and noxious materials.”

Infrequent visitors might seek labels as they are unfamiliar with the objects. But, similarly, they will be more likely to stop using them if they don’t meet their expectation.  They are hoping to find more about that thing:

  • They might have a question in mind that they hope to have answered.
  • They might want to learn a little
  • They might just want help “getting it”

In other words, their needs are broad. You can’t do it all for them on the paper label.

Looking at it we have a good number of people (Infrequent and regular visitors), who have a need for fairly general information. Within that group, you have a small portion that is especially unlikely to know your norms. This small group, infrequent visitors, is incredibly important. In design, they often say design for the extremes. In other words, pay special care to the people who have special needs, and everyone will feel special. So, when you work hard to make sure your labels meet these infrequent visitors, your regular visitors will win.

But, now to the challenge. Here is one situation when the extremes have drastically different needs. Your labels cannot easily meet both the needs of infrequent visitors and the frequent visitors concurrently. The power-user wants deep, specific information. The majority of the audience want broad, general information. If you use your label for both of these audiences, you are not going to meet the needs of either audience. Your infrequent visitor will be turned off by the depth and your frequent visitor will feel disappointed or even that you are condescending to them.

And, herein is a bigger problem, who are you designing for? You are designing for an audience that consumes more content and more quickly.

What technology have to do with labels? 

First, labels can’t exist in a vacuum. The challenge becomes when the institution’s voice doesn’t address what visitors are asking. That paper label cannot address every question that the visitors are asking.  Labels need to respond to the fact that visitors are different. As we started this post, they are standing there with their phone in hand, and yet choosing to read what you offer. Are you responding to their generosity in-kind? Are you trying to give them what they need or what you need?

The label now needs to evolve. We need to better understand why people are choosing to walk over to that label. A 2015 New York Times article hailed the growing importance of labels (and digital text) and pointed to the many schools of thought on labels.   Yet, the article didn’t point out something important–we really need to align our labels with the changes in how visitors use text.  We need to do the work to research this essential problem. Earlier studies suggest that people use labels, but these studies need to be updated.  We need to see what the culture of skimming means for labels. Maybe we need more text? Maybe we need bullets?  Maybe we need links to broad sources online? I have no idea because I am not the average museum visitor. That is why we as a field cannot answer this without visitors evaluation.

When labels don’t keep in touch with the real world, visitors will notice the lapse. For example, the fates deemed that the “Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. should run currently with Bill Cosby’s alleged sexual misconduct trials. Visitors enjoying the artwork also had to confront a quote by the man who was being discussed on every news channel as a rapist. Given the length of planning, those labels were edited and printed long before the news broke. The poor installer who was carefully making sure the label was square could not have known of the prosecutors’ careful work on the Cosby indictments. But, either way, once the news broke, they put a disclaimer on the website but retained the print label. In other words, they wanted to maintain the “curatorial sanctity” of the gallery and displaced the real issues to the virtual sphere.  Projecting authority and neutrality is problematic for the museum and visitors. For the museum, neutrality obfuscates continuing scholarship. For the visitors, this causes confusion and/or results in eventual distrust of the museum.

Visitors are now very used to technology as their consumption method for ideas.  So first and foremost, it frees the label from being the only form of communication. Many museums have jumped on this pleasure, diverting content to other digital tools. However, now, our audiences have become discerning.  This means that we need to do much better with text:

  • We need to develop purpose-built text for digital tools. They are not labels. They are not being used by the people who use a label. They are for the power-users.
  • We need to understand that numbers aren’t the key to making decisions about content. Even if the pick up for digital might be a subset of the general audience, they consume at a high level. They also allow museums to share their greatest asset, their knowledge to a great degree.
  • Put time and money into digital writing. It matters a lot to the consumers. These consumers know bad digital writing.
  • Learn what good digital writing means. This is essential. Digital text is not just a digital label. Work with the whole team to understand good digital writing. Museum staff often consume very different types of writing than their audiences.

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

Previous Post:

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