Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Teams, My teams, and Are we one team?

The Ship of Fools by Hieronymus Bosch, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

By Seema Rao and Paul Bowers

I've been living in a wintery wonderland and luxuriating a beachy wonderland in equal turns recently. Last week, Rob Weisberg posted when I was at MCN (sadly as missing him terribly at that conference.)

I'm so glad to have gotten to go to MCN. Museum Computer Network has become my Shangri-la, in a way. A mirage, I see even when it's not there. I connect with many of those people online and in email. I wrote a bit about my true love for my conference friends last week on Medium. I wrote that post because I had one heck of a conference. So many things that had meant so much to me were coming to fruition, and like a godparent, I had barely anything to do with them. It felt great and also like an out of body experience.

In some ways, museum work has this illusory aspect. Or museum work is like atomic theory perhaps. We all have so many colleagues we rarely meet. And, then you run into each other in life or online, maybe exchange some energy, and like electrons bounce to higher levels.

This idea of bouncing ideas and growing them might be said for my other post of the week, about touching art. I'm pretty open to a number of possibilities in museums. I am most definitely not open on the issues of collection care. The sanctity of the work is paramount. So how do we balance NO Touching policies and messaging against welcoming visitors? I don't have an answer, but would love to increase my energy levels on best solutions with your help. (as always drop by a line in comments or at Twitter @artlust)  So in this case, I'm hoping you run into me with your ideas. (I did this illustration on my plane back from MCN that made me feel better though offered few solutions. And yes, it really is 2 Legit 2 Legit to quit. But I couldn't. I just couldn't).

All this meandering introduction, perhaps, is to lead up to this week's guest speaker. I've definitely felt energized by interacting with him, usually online. Paul lives in Australia, and I've had a couple of meals with him at most. I've also had very thoughtful conversations with him and I feel I've found a kindred spirit. So much so, we've presented a paper together on the stage of MuseumNext. I was thrilled he was willing to share some of his thoughts here today. Enjoy.

Are we one team? 
By Paul Bowers
As Seema wrote in the first of the work series, our sector has been professionalized and reshaped over the past few decades. While we are enriched by the many professional fields intersecting to create the contemporary museum workplace, it presents a challenge we rarely talk about. 
In every museum, we find different values, language and work practices. I want a debrief, you talk about retros; I ask for the budget, you offer me the ‘P and L’. A successful day for the retail team is not the same as for the registrars - how do we work together when some people want to make a profit, and others study provenance? Many workplaces have these complexities, but I think our sector is unique in the sheer number of different domain experts - and that means we have to work harder than most at building common cause.
Lots of low-level workplace frustration can be laid at this door. I think I could fund my coffee habit if I had a dollar for each complaint of ‘Jeff from department blah is messing up my project, grrr.’ And there’s always a Jeff to blame: I’m sure even Jeff has a Jeff.
Before offering some suggestions, it’s important to emphasize there are a lot of unspoken assumptions of privilege and social encoding around values and how things should be done: that ‘academic’ is superior to ‘technical’, for example. We must be mindful, humble and open to learn about the privilege we may have in the workplace.
That being said, my first suggestion is to slow down: invest time in being clear what we mean and why we are acting as we are. Expertise gleaned from years in one sector, understood easily with your department colleagues, doesn’t automatically feel valid to someone without this experience. Deploying authority to win is easy but doesn’t help in the long run. We build trust and social capital by taking the time to explain - and explaining our reasoning can often assist in clarifying our thinking.
Overt your values, rationale and motivations. When passing on a piece of work, be clear, ‘I did it like this because _____.’ An exhibition team of mine was in conflict with the functions and events team - it was resolved when that department head said ‘I love doing two things at work: making money and supporting the arts. When I make money, it pays for exhibitions. That’s why I want to make more money.’ Written here, it looks patronizing - but in that moment, the direct simplicity brought clarity and drained conflict from the conversations.
My second suggestion is to remember that no-one comes to work to do a terrible job or annoy their co-workers. So when someone seems frustrating, work really hard at assuming good intent. Reflect on ‘how do they think they are creating a positive impact in this conversation?’ Find a way to ask - can you explain a bit more about how this way of working moves us forward? Usually, there is an excellent reason!
The legal team in a previous museum frustrated me - they were excruciatingly slow. And then a mutual colleague explained how it looked from their perspective - slowing me down and checking the detail was their job, to protect the organization against the existential threat of a huge legal cost in the future. This helped me see their contribution as a positive thing.
My final suggestion is to be more intentional about purpose, and who owns it. We can often unintentionally create micro-empires around tiny tasks, rather than cohesive language around a shared endeavor. Stating ‘I will select the artworks, you will prepare and document them, they will install them’ may be factually accurate, but it is so much better to say ‘let’s work together on getting this exhibition looking great, let’s agree how we’ll get it done, how about this: …’ before that statement. Use collective language in every situation, unless talking about your own direct accountability.
I’m sure there are many more ways to create and maintain common cause with the different professionals who make up our workforce. The goal isn’t to make everyone work the same - I’d be a terrible legal counsel! - but if we can reduce friction and create more harmony, the rewards for us as workers (including Jeff!), and eventually for our audiences, will be great.

Paul Bowers is a museum professional in Melbourne, Australia, who usually blogs at

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Activity Level Discussion in Museums: Is a Role Marketplace an Answer?

Written by Seema Rao and Robert J. Weisberg

A few years ago, I had this crazy idea to write a book to support a single conference session. I wasn't alone in my zeal. A friend, Robert J. Weisberg, had the same idea. Together we wrote a how-to manual for organizational change, called Change at Work: Not Just Surviving but ThrivingThe weekly calls and the Slack channel in preparation for writing the book was incredibly impactful for me. I'd managed for ages by then, and I'd certainly put in place change management. But until I started talking big picture with Rob, I don't know that I was truly thinking out the big issues. Now, not all of you will get to spend every other week for months chatting with Rob about museums, but I wanted to offer you a slice of how wonderful that can be.

This week Rob will share some ideas about museum work. What I particularly like about this post is that he's turning a critical eye to something many of us take for granted.

The Activity Level Discussion in Museums: Is a Role Marketplace an Answer? By Robert J. Weisberg

 Activity level is a problem for museum staff. The solution is unclear. A marketplace of museum roles is worth a look. Many museum staff realize that the model of more-with-less is unsustainable. Perceptions among staff subcultures differ, however. Is the problem too many exhibitions? Too few staff? Too much collecting? Too much digital? Too much perfectionism borne of high-achieving academic backgrounds? (And what does "too much" mean, anyway?) If you answered "maybe" or "it depends" to all of the above, pat yourself on the back for your honesty. But if you want other people's projects canned so your great projects can continue, then we have gotten nowhere.

Museum leaders often see their institution in terms of ambitious expansions of buildings and collections. These generate more work without corresponding increases in funding for staff and benefits. It's a pernicious culture of seeing rank-and-file staff as costs, not assets, nevermind as people.

Staff cuts aren't the answer when those who are left end up overworked. We've heard the question, who should pay for art? But who should pay for those who work with the art and connect art to people? People make museums.

The answers aren't simple. The terms "innovation" and "engagement" have become buzzwords thanks to too many outcome-unclear professional development classes and staff surveys without corresponding action. It's no wonder why—creating the atmosphere for development to bloom or acting upon staff frustrations requires top-to-bottom organizational changes, not just a vague resetting of priorities. Collecting staff opinions is easy. Giving staff the authority, time, and trust to experiment, fail, learn, and teach the organization is far more difficult.

What does it mean to tackle activity levels in real terms? Reducing the amount of work everyone has so that most people can leave work on time? Cutting the number or intensity of projects? And if projects are cut, does that mean that staff will no longer have the agency to experiment, which might raise staff morale and yet might unleash some chaos?

The "Google 20 percent" innovation idea, allocating some portion of staff hours to self-managed time, has its supporters. However, 20 percent of an insane workday isn't the solution. Museum workflows have trouble with cross-team or -departmental projects. What happens when everyone has a project they want to pursue? (Gasp—would that mean figuring out how to compromise at scale? Can a trust potion be put in the water coolers?)

A more profound change would be to rate work across the museum on its impact with visitors—being sure to value how internal workflows and the unsexy infrastructure projects influence visitor outcomes. This creates a measure which organization leaders can share widely and which would help staff see how their work connects with the public. (This exercise can also help clarify how work like preservation, conservation, and research can matter to the public.) The institution can sunset work which doesn't connect, such as legacy projects which don't matter to visitor experience.
Then—and here's the radical part—give staff the opportunity to take part in higher-rated projects across the museum, seeing work as roles and responsibilities, and not just titles and boxes on an org chart.

A larger organization could test this approach in a few departments, with results made public internally. Staff could work anywhere in the org for a few hours a week. Departments that fear losing the attention of their workers would complain, but this might get leaders to make their own projects and responsibilities more appealing, leading to a marketplace of projectsBalancing organizational needs and staff satisfaction is an institution-wide endeavor.

Museum staff who strongly identify with their authority and expertise will need the humility to learn what their colleagues are doing. This is not playtime at work. Staff will have to interrogate their own understanding of their museum's mission and strategy—the why which staff training programs rarely address, not just the what.

A marketplace of museum roles would be a challenge to implement, but it is an experiment worth trying. Museums might learn something, and museum workers can't be much unhappier. Staff salaries and benefits are a problem, but if museum leaders are serious about dealing with the vicious spiral of activity levels in ways other than hacking at budgets and projects, they can't afford to ignore any option.


Rob Weisberg is the Senior Project Manager, Publications and Editorial, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. He usually blogs at Museum Human

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Museum Work

Author: Seema Rao

This month, we’re talking about work. Not the work we do, but the ways we do that work.
While many American museums require 37.5 or 38 hours of work a week, most of us put in way more. In some old jobs I've had, particularly when I was full-time at part-time, juggling multiple roles, I regularly put in 100 hours a week. I came from a family that did that, so it seemed normal, though my relatives were all earning considerably more for their 100 hours a week.

I’m setting wages aside this month. Trust me, I know they are important. Salary is, often, the way organizations signal your worth. This is particularly evident when organizations pay greater salaries to certain departments overall than others. And, as Phillip Thompson said inour panel last week, the museum business model sets up problems for our field, because we are always trapped by the amount of money we can raise. Therefore, the whole issue of wages gets at the heart of the faulty systems of capitalism, the culture of women’s work, and museums as privilege-concentrating institutions. In other words, wage is enormous conversation and deserves its own month down the road.

This month though, I want to deal with something a bit more manageable. How we do our work and how we can improve it. The big questions are, how can people make changes to improve the working conditions, and how can leaders help organizations run better?

Efficiency is a favorite topic of mine. I like to think about where to shave off a little time (though who knows what I’m doing with that extra.) And, next week, I can share some of my thoughts on efficiency. But efficiency is like calibrating a well-run machine. This month, I’d like to think about our many broken machines.

Museums might earn their philanthropy partly through gifts from commercial enterprises, but for a very long time, their workplaces were run very differently. They had the committee decision-making structures from universities and the collections-authority systems of libraries. But they had a flavor all their own, spiced up with curatorial authority and donor privilege. In the last twenty years, or so, professionalization has changed museum work. Much of the quirkiness in the field has given way to corporate norms. Dashboards and ROI are as much part of our workplace language as community engagement and light-sensitivity.

This transformation has brought some good. Last month, we talked about audience engagement. Almost twenty years ago, when I started in community engagement, meeting after meeting would be held about what X group of people wanted. We never once asked them. We had no data to support our suppositions. And, we still barreled in and gave them the wrong thing. Now, I can’t imagine creating a new program without data.

Moving toward a more professionalized, and I might say corporate, structure has also brought negative issues in the workplace. In an old job, I was asked to track all the costs and benefits of family programs. Our systems weren’t up to snuff enough to let me click a button to generate a dashboard pulling directly from enterprise software. Plus like many organizations, family programs were a necessary evil for that organization, not what the museum perceived as their worthy audience. So, I sat at my little desk and crunched away. In an old life, I took plenty of stats. Numbers and graphs excite me. They are as plain, if not more, than words, in my mind. I sent the report to my boss. Six months later, she said she didn’t read it. She wasn’t into numbers. My tale of wasted work woes isn’t being retold for sympathy. I’m using this as an example of when a museum workplace needs fixing. First, we are often asking ourselves to do more, but we don’t scale up our system to do so. If you are going to become data-informed, you need to have your data easily accessible (or pay someone extra to crunch the data). Data is not free. Second, we are often choosing to make a change without scaling up internal capacity. If your leaders don’t use numbers, get them training, or don’t waste the junior staff’s time on generating them.

We have a certain amount of time allocated for work. As individuals and organizations, we choose how to allocate them. Giving a critical eye to labor, and the reasons certain systems don’t work is an essential way to improve work overall.

Museums are often run like city-states, each solving for their own problems. Just as Sparta and Athens solved city management differently, two museums on the same block can be run quite differently. Diversity in organizations and workplace solutions can be good for our field, that is, if we learn from each other. We often look across the street or nation at other museums for how they solve the big things: exhibitions, building projects, technology. But, we aren’t all that good at talking about the boring mundane parts of our lives like the way we do work. I suggest speaking across the sector about work could improve working conditions and as a result the field.

We are at that museum way more than 37.5 hours a week, and why should those hours be frustrating and unhappy? So, this month’s big issues are: What are some of the big issues you see about how work is done in Museums? What can you do to change this?

Also the picture at the header was Rob Lancefield's old desk, and it was part of Chad Weinard's wonderful talk about work from an age old MCN conference.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Community-centered and Audience-Engagement and What not

Author: Seema Rao

This month, inspired by the panel at Western Museums Association, we've been discussing all things audience, community, and visitors.

The far-ranging conversation in the second week (a summary of the panel) touched on how interconnected and slippery the terms we use about the people who enjoy our organizations (and for that matter the ones we wished did.)

For this week, I'm summarizing thoughts people had about community-engagement on Twitter. I asked the somewhat provocative question: Can museums go TOO far with audience engagement/ being visitor-centered?

Many people brought up the issue of defining terms, as I mentioned last week, including Linda Norris' comment:
Susan Spero added that community is a long-term investment. Their comments bring up the heterogeneity of the people associated with museums. There is a group of people who visit, but not all of them are invested in your organization. Similarly, there is a group of people don't visit, but they might be invested in your audience.

This issue is also linked to future growth. Membership programs are a good example. Most membership programs benefit people who already come or people just like them. They are a small, important sector of your organization. Yet, if CultureTrack's data is to be believed, membership as a funding model might be moving toward extinction. If you decide to plan future growth on the existing people walking in the door, you might be eschewing important audiences that would ensure a more stable future. Nina Simon pointed this out in a story about a museum with a cop in the lobby:
Museums often make poor choices for their visitors, current community, and future community when they don't really spend time understanding each group (and seeing the various nuances). I've always been fascinated about where museums think it's okay to get lax. Walk into any curatorial/exhibition meeting in a museum and say placard. I promise you at least three people will be unable to stop themselves from muttering "label." Knowledge is our core competency, on some level. Most museum professionals would never think to make something up about a collection object, but we are often, in essence, making things up about our visitors when we rely on anecdotal data. Any decision made on behalf of visitors bc I saw it once or my kid things or I believe is a poor one. Luis Marcelo Mendes brings up the hubris of museums in his humorous response:
Regan Forrest's comments overlap both Nina's and Luis. Lack of knowledge can be incredibly problematic. When we make choices for the many, we are often doing so at the detriment of the few:
I've been thinking about this often in my work. Safe spaces, for example, is a phrase we use to imply a group of people may act without fear of their norms causing a stir. But who is safe if that space? Safety is often negotiated for the largest group, and so smaller groups safety can be compromised. Similarly, if visitor-centered is about the largest group, there are smaller groups who might suffer. This is not to say that visitor-centered means white-centered. But in keeping with Regan's point, if we don't question our premises and actively work to make visitor-centered diverse-focused, we might default to safe spaces/ visitor-centered spaces for whites/ majority groups.

And this is why clarity in terms of terms matters. When many museum professions say, this is just too visitor-centered, they are often highlighting their lack of knowledge, as Kate Livingston brought up:
In terms of the original question, for many people, it was about the line between visitors and curators. Nathan Lachenmeyer mentioned:
He went on to discuss how the museum should strive for a dialogue between what we want to share and what people want to know. (Something I agree with and wrote about previously.) Dean Krimmel suggested the guideline for too far was the mission. If you've picked up programs or exhibitions to draw visitors, but they don't connect to the mission you're on shaky ground. He mentioned the "so what" test, as a way to say, the mission and the ways we share the mission should be something that audiences want to know.

Many people saw Instagram museums as the ultimate non-mission driven, too far on the visitor-engagement. I might argue that their mission is to give people experiences, and they do well by their missions as their bank accounts show. And, understanding these orgs help museums, as Koven Smith brought up. It's important to interrogate what lines they've crossed and why. Those organizations are market-driven, as label me mabel PhD mentioned. To me, the biggest issue about those "museums" is that they are about now, the market today, not the future. That to me is what makes them different than traditional museums. We are not just about today but also in the future. When we let today's market drive our decisions, we are liable to lose future ones, as Nina mentioned above.

Right now, those, we still have a ways to go. We're not even close to being too visitor-centered; frankly many of us aren't even a little visitor-centered. As Jenny Lilac mentioned:
We've got a ways to go in understanding visitors, and I think also understanding ourselves. We need to consider the question of too visitor-centered in terms of not just the visitor but ourselves. When we say it's too visitor-centered, we might think the change is too far for us to brook. But then we need to be careful to go back to our mission. We are here for visitors. We are here to share, not hoard. As such, Matt might have asked the essential question for the month

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Community-Engagement, Visitor-Centered, and Other Words

Written by Seema Rao

I've written about Community Engagement often on my old blog, Brilliant Idea Studio. Last March, I wrote up some general notes about community engagement based on a mind-map I did at a #MuseumNext talk.

Here is the gist of my remarks: Community Engagement is one of those terms that is tossed around in museums but can become encrusted with coded meaning. Often museums use the word community engagement to mean bringing in low-income people, with “community” being a coded term for underprivileged people. Sometimes community engagement might be used as the term for bringing in new audiences. Or, in an ideal situation, community engagement is a term for connecting people to your organization.

I bring this up because the interrelationship of humans and museums are the topics of this month. I wrote at the beginning of the month about human-centered museums. And, last week, I compiled the notes from the Western Museums Association conference about engagement broadly. This week, as I always do, I started a conversation on social to use as the basis of the month's summary post.

Kate Livingston brought up a great point. Often in these debates, the meaning of key terms get obfuscated. As such, people speak at cross purposes. She was talking about visitor-centered being misunderstood. So, this month, I thought I'd give you my definitions for the key ideas of the month. I'd love to hear your definitions:

Visitor-centered means centering your visitors in your work. When you keep them as the center of your planning and decision-making, you will make choices that work for your visitors. For me, centering visitors is different than being visitor-driven. The latter is like letting the two-year-old plan and make dinner; the former is making dinner the two-year-old will enjoy but that falls into your desires as a parent. 

Community Engagement (as I said above) is connecting people to your organization. These people can be local or national (virtually). They might be underserved or not. They might be of color or not. They might be marginalized or not.

Human-centered means understanding the humans in your museum, including staff, and designing for their needs.

Data-informed is a way of using data, often generated through visitor-actions to help you make decisions as you become more visitor-centered. (Unlike data-driven which is using data in lieu of other tools to make decisions).

Often visitor-center work also overlaps DEAI work. Those terms are also important to define. I am constantly revisiting how I define the terms.

Diversity is the inclusion of people who identify in different ways, including by race, gender, age, and class.

Inclusion is the practice of breaking/ transforming barriers to include everyone.

Access is creating affordances that help anyone participate in your organization.

Equity is developing methods, platforms, and systems that allow for the inclusion of diverse people into your organization.

In my mind, museums need to be human-centered, including being visitor-centered, which is accomplished by being data-informed. One of the processes by which museums enact their visitor-centered culture is through community engagement. And, community engagement is essential in making museums more equitable, i.e. places where diverse people feel included and find no barriers to access. 

What other terms are important as we think about community engagement, visitor-centered museums, and audiences? How do you define these terms?

Share here in the comments or on social.As always, tag me in your posts and shares so I can include you in my summary post at the end of the month (TW @artlust, Linkedin@seemarao, IG @_art_lust_)

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Audience Engagement Conversation at Western Museums Association

The Western Museum Association was kind enough to invite me to speak on a panel about engagement at their annual meeting in Boise. I was joined by

  • Scott Stulen, Director & President, Philbrook Museum of Art 
  • Maren Dougherty, EVP, Communications and Visitor Experience, The Autry Museum of the American West
  • Adam Rozan, Director of Programs & Audience Development, The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History
  • Phillip Thompson, Executive Director/Board President, Idaho Black History Museum

The panel included people from different types of museums (history and art), scales of organization, and people with different specialties. Despite these divergences, we found great convergence around the big issues in the field.

Phillip’s early remark about museums was an invocation for everyone. He noted that coming from technology and medicine, he wasn’t hampered by the norms of the field. As an outsider, he immediately saw that museums were operating “under a business model that doesn’t work.” He then went on to note that we run museums with the hopes of being supported by philanthropy, when in fact we could have a product that people want. However, in order to accomplish the former, museums would have to transform to be more consumer-driven.

I was struck also by Scott and Adam’s repeated notes about interrogating the sources of knowledge. Scott told a story about the edict to not step on the grass in his lovely Italianate gardens. When he investigated the source, he found the tradition was from a long-retired gardener. Rationally looking at the system caused him to make a different choice. He allowed people to walk on the grass and added tables to make the space inviting. While some long-time members of the community were unhappy with the change, scores of new people came in.

In many ways, the subtext of our whole panel was that change will mean your audience will be different, but that’s not bad. As I said last week, there are people out there who could like you. They don’t know what they’re missing. But you can feel their absence in your empty galleries. Often the loss of visitors is completely due to your structures. Adam told a touching story about his late father, who suffered from Alzheimer's. His mother, the caregiver, called potential outings to see if they had family restrooms. If they didn’t, she couldn’t visit. We are turning people away without even noticing.

Adam spoke about this issue of restrooms in part as a sign about bigger issues. Organizations are neither just leaders or staff, but an ecosystem of people working together. He related the theory of the Commander’s Intent, in which the end state needs to be in line with all operations, and everyone needs to be on board. Everyone needs to understand their part so they can make decisions from their roles. But, the organization also needs to put its money and effort behind this. The ship only works if supported and organized so that everyone can support each other.

We also have a culture of not treating the people who are coming right. Maren talked about the importance of including people at public events, even if they don’t go to the galleries. Bringing people in means often changing your idea of what an ideal visit looks like. She also noted it might mean finding ways to meet real needs. At her organization, she noted serving seniors was important, as this is rare in Los Angeles, but also serving families in an unstructured way. Rather than forcing people into the programs they wanted, they looked for what people wanted and solved for that. This often requires real problem-solving. Maren also got the largest “wow’s” from the audience when she talked about the issue of alcohol and museum programming. People are used to carrying around beverages; museums need to keep works safe and facilities clean. Their institution has started experimenting with giving out beverages at parties in branded adult sippy cups that visitors can take into the museum’s theater.

Another big topic was the issue of demonstrating your desire to change. Phillip and Scott spoke about the transformations of procedures to enable change. Phillip, for example, wanted more college students as he is on a college campus, so he put a college student on the board. Adam also talked about leading change in his teams often by rethinking work with them.

Making change is not without stress. And, in many of our prep conversations, we talked about the real challenge of changing human systems. But at the same time, almost every museum professional I’ve spoken to speaks of how visitors don’t feel welcome. It feels like the data is pretty damning. We need to change.

What are your thoughts on audience engagement and change? Is there a line in the sand for the field in terms of how visitor-centered we should be? Is there a bad side to being visitor-centered? What's the hard part of being visitor-centered?

Share here in the comments or on social.
As always, tag me in your posts and shares so I can include you in my summary post at the end of the month (@artlust@seemarao@_art_lust_)

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Audience-Engagement Successes and Failures

Author: Seema Rao

This week I’m talking about being human-centered. I’m including some failures. Why? Well, exposure of failures helps us learn and helps us lead. As a leader, sharing failures helps normalize fallibility. As a person, it reminds you are human, and that’s good. Everyone in this field is human and as such fallible. If aren’t failing, you are either deluded, blind, or failing so hard you’re blinded and deluded by your work. (I will say that the two programs I will mention occurred fifteen years ago, and many jobs ago. I have had more recent failures, I assure you. But there is one caveat with sharing failures. They are rarely just your fault. So, make sure to be transparent with others involved before sharing.)

Audience-centered for me is a subset of human-centered. Audiences are a portion of the humans in the museum ecosystem. As first-time parents, they are the focus of most attention, almost to a fault. They are certainly an important raison d’etre of our field, though not the only one. The reason I think of a museum as human-centered is that to become audience-centered your organization has to center people. You have to get through the feels. You have to get at the motivations. As a collective, the staff needs to grow emotional awareness and empathy for others. Without an internal understanding of humanity, it’s hard to be audience-centered.

Practically, being audience-centered touches every aspect of staff work. If the decision-making factor to be what is best for your audience, your choices change. Signage goes from subtle enough to be hidden to useful to visitors. Labels go from ideal for my scholarly friends to legible to broad audiences. Gallery Talks become conversations instead of lectures (well, for some audiences).

The clarity of being audience-centered can be transformative and also daunting. Most of our common practices have been related to audiences, but not centered on audiences. We did what we could to foster audiences who thought like us. Centering audiences more broadly means hearing people who aren’t like us. People will not like you. Some people will not ever like you. But there are also some people who might like you if they get to know you. That’s who you are going to win when you become audience-centered.
Becoming whole audience-centered is a bit like learning to make friends once you mature. In middle school, you’re willing to change to make friends. In high school, you might refuse to bend at all for potential friends. As adult, you get it’s a give and take, a mutual growth. Some organizations might think they have to change totally. That isn’t being audience-centered; that’s being faddish and unsustainable.  

If your metric is more people in the door, you might be tempted to completely twist and transform yourself in a brazen attempt to get people in.  Here is one failure I remember from my early days of audience-centered. When I ran an adult studios program, I started reading a great deal about the rise of craft culture (this was in the pre-Pinterest days). I ran scores and scores of classes, like purse-making and shoe-decorating. The classes sold, but it took me away from what was the real goal of our program, connecting people to collections through action. In that year, I raised enough money to completely cover my salary, but I didn’t actually grow our audiences. People took the class they wanted and left us. The program had shifted too far from the mission to keep people tethered to the organization. And, I was exhausted. After a great deal of consideration, I stripped the program of those ancillary classes. Profit decreased but repeat attendance increased. In the end, our organization for this model better for our visitors and our needs.

So how did I figure it out?
1.     I actually listened. I decided to talk to people. We did quick surveys and I did interviews. Then I demonstrated that I was hearing them but making some of the changes that were suggested.
2.     I tested the waters. I didn’t completely shift the program at once. I tried a few new things, and then asked people what they thought.
3.     I was willing to get it wrong and change. Visitors make a number of adaptations to come to us. Our hours, our rules, our spaces, all place restraints on visitors. If we’re asking them to change, we have to also make changes.

Museums often don’t have enough clout to be about to be community-centered or audience centered on their own. They often need to look to other fields (or other types of museums) for partners. One of my hardest projects was a museum-library partnership. As a lifelong library patron, I was thrilled about this partnership. While museums might be haven or destinations, libraries have always been a home to me. I walked into the project expecting synergy and rainbows. I was woefully wrong. What went awry? 

What did I learn: 
4.     Partners need to understand each other. We didn’t do our due diligence to understand the differences of norms. We didn’t articulate where our norms overlapped and where our goals connected. We didn’t give ourselves time to create a collective language.
5.     Partners need to plan together. Being transparent about goals is the first step, but then if you want to get to the end together, you have to chart a shared path. If you don’t, you’ll be met with many roadblocks.
6.     Partners need to share success. Success and credit are infinite properties. Hoarding them will not make you more successful and will devalue your future relationship with your partners. Find ways you can both benefit from success.

In summary, for me, being audience-centered is putting the people at the middle. Most of my points above might be summarized as: remember people matter; remember people have feelings; remember not to crush or ignore those feelings.

If you choose to focus on human-centered work, your organization will reap many benefits, including increased visitor engagement and attendance. But you need to increase internal capacity, including emotional intelligence and commitment to changing the means of work. The benefits certainly outweigh the investment, though. Human-centered is in essence letting the heart of your mission shine through the people of the museum.

I've written a bit more about audience engagement on my other blog, including co-creation and partnership

As always, tag me in your posts and shares so I can include you in my summary post at the end of the month (@artlust@seemarao@_art_lust_)

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

What is Audience Engagement?

Prehistoric skelaton suspended above museum visitors

Audience engagement is the easiest and hardest thing about our work.

Let’s start with the easy. We open our doors and let people in. We’ve done it for a couple hundred years. We understand things like door count and fire code. We get exhibitions and installations. We’re pretty good with time tickets. We’ve got casework and collection care sorted. Many of us spend some quality time getting good stuff on the walls. We’re doing our best.

But our best might be the challenge. Our best is defined within the norms of our field. Our best articles are the ones we define against what our other scholar friends are writing. Our definitions of the best exhibitions are either best for our field or what we think is best for our visitors.

And, before all my research and evaluation friends have an attack of “but wait!,” I will say that I’ve seen incredible changes in our field in my almost twenty years in. I’d guess these changes barely register for visitors. Why? Society is changing. T’was and always will, certainly. But the rate of change has been FAST. And our museum change rate is glacial. The clash is basically the thing that keeps museum leaders up at night.

How do we make the right changes to make the most of audience engagement given our museum culture? What changes to museum culture allow us to best grow audiences without destroying the best of our core competencies? How do we make the choices that will keep museums from going extinct? This last question isn’t hyperbolic. Audience engagement is part and parcel to the survival of our work. Our future isn’t promised. We make it.

So, this month, I ask you a few questions: What are the challenges in audience engagement? What are your successes? What are your hopes for the future?

Before we get to the work of discussing audience engagement, this week, let’s talk definitions. What is engagement?

I’ve been thinking recently about the words we use in our fields. We often preference words with nebulous and complicated meanings as a way of seeming “with the people.” Experience is one of my favorites, and not just because it’s my job. Experience is a word you might be able to feel and know, but it’s hard to pin down. What is not an experience? What is the metric of a good experience?
Experience and engagement are a bit linked. A good experience is usually engaging. Engaging is a word that overlaps welcoming, interesting, surprising, and audience-appropriate. Engaging and experience are absolutely in the eye of the beholder if you will. Death metal will not be engaging to me even if performed in the loveliest place on the planet by the loveliest people with the greatest visitor experience strategies. We all have things that no effort will sell. So, engagement is about connecting some people.

Engagement has grown in importance to museums because we feel like there must be more people who could feel connected to our organizations. On some level, that’s an assumption based on our own high opinion of ourselves. We believe we are awesome, so people should want to come. But one another level, it’s an admission of fault. We were doing engagement by just opening our doors. We’re pretty sure that’s the wrong way to do it. We know empty galleries aren’t the point of our work. And, we know we need to do better.

But, herein lies the challenge. What does audience engagement mean? To me, it means transformation. It means every little part of our work. It’s about systems. Digital, parking, signage, board relations, everything is about transforming our work.

People are at the definition of engagement to me. It’s a word that stands in for all the efforts we make to connect people to collections. (I talked about all the people last week).   

Next week, I’ll talk about some of my audience engagement including a couple failures. B/c failure is about learning.

In the meantime, how do you define audience engagement?

As always, tag me in your posts and shares so I can include you in my summary post at the end of the month (@artlust@seemarao@_art_lust_)

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The Matter of Museums

This month we’ve been thinking about “What is a museum?” (I'm not alone there. Paul Bowers' post and Mike Jones' posts are worth reading.)
I’ve been visiting museums my whole life. I’ve worked in them my whole adult life. Does that make me the best judge of museums?
On one hand, I have the knowledge base to help me frame the issues. I know the subtle nuances and big issues all too well. But, I’m also very close to the issue. It’s my livelihood and my love, my avocation and my vocation. I suspect if you are reading this, you might be in a similar boat.
I’d posted on twitter a while ago about how one of my challenges with ICOM’s definition is that I wasn’t sure how visitor-centered it was. I might change that position slightly. I wonder how people-centered it was.
This a field about people.
People are the defining characteristics of museums. I get that they are places. But places are sites for people to congregate paid for by people and planned by people. I get they are collections. Collections are collected by people to be exhibited for people and saved for people of the future.
I’ve worked with and at plenty of museums that can sometimes feel empty. When the galleries are quiet, with my clipclop shoes the only sound, the museum feels dead. It is only enlivened by people, visitors and staff alike.
With that in mind, I turned the question of “who is a museum” to the people, here and on my social platforms, even my personal ones. I thank everyone for their awesome replies.
Many people, particularly family and friends from non-museum world, talked about museums at places to visit, like a cousin-in-law, Tina Cappel who said, “A museum is a place that captures existence for people to wander and wonder, to enjoy and to be educated.” Tina isn’t even a plant, despite being a local member. Her answer is what many a museum professional would want people to say. It’s a place for people to explore. I’d hope more people in the world, particularly potential museum visitors to North East Ohio ;>) go with this definition.
A place to go see stuff was a common thread in general, both in museum-workers and non-museum workers. I spoke a bit last week about the action of observation, and how our work turns the collection (nouns) into visitor actions (verbs). The collections are often authentic and singular, surprising and thought-provoking. They can also be confounding and banal. Our collections are often our greatest strength, though we also often choose to showcase them in ways that bore even the interested. But, when done right, our collections are there to awe. As one old colleague, Lex Lancaster, related, “When I worked at the NGA for a summer, a heard a little kid walking out say, ‘I've seen some things I can't unsee.’ That about sums it up.”
A college friend, Nora Rooney, added something important. Museums though can feel very museum like other educational spaces, despite the careful curation. She said, I think that Disney could be a museum to someone who goes there to learn, so what a museum is depends on the frame of reference I suppose.” Shaelyn Amaio, a museum worker, agreed, as do I.
To non-museum goers, the line between museum and not-museum is blurry. Museums are quality learning spaces, but so are libraries. Museums are experiences, but so is Disney. Museum house things, but so do libraries. Museums are adjacent and overlap so many other things. These adjacencies are essential in the ways we function and the ways our visitors understand us. But they also give us a bit of parallax as we try to create a discrete and singular definition. And, let me say, you all did a great job debating the definition. I could not possibly distill all the threads into a singular and discrete definition.
Many museum-workers talked about the community museums foster. Chris Totten summed up many of these threads well. He defined museums as “a lifeline between its community and the wider cultural landscape. It’s a place where people can go to see ideas from the wide world and where the wide world can bring itself to local communities.” Museums can be of the place and outside the place currently; this simultaneously sited in multiple emotional locations is often an important beacon to people seeking a community they can find no where else.  
The position of community to museum for many people hinged on the collections. For many people museums are purveyors of and intercessors with history. The museum is in all the times, past, present, and future, simultaneously.
The museum is therefore an intersection of space, thought, and action. Scott Stullen succinctly stated museums are “A place of community, conversation and connection.” But this effort to create community and connection between people and things doesn’t happen by accident. As Adrienne Lalli Hills points out, a museum is: “....A sustained and intentional effort to facilitate interactions between people and ideas (including objects)” Many people offered time-machine like definitions like Nicole Balsdon, who said museums are “Time machine to take things and ideas from the past and today to today tomorrow and beyond!” But J Collins was quick to point to the fact that objects without people are just things. They defined museums as “object-based, contextual stories. Without context and stories, you're just a warehouse.”
Some of the most interesting debates about the issue were about where we want to go in the field. Dr. Sushma Jansari pointed out it is also a where new thoughts and ideas grow, “they are places for experimentation & conversation. A place where knowledge grows in collaboration w/ a broad range of people both within & beyond the museum, from scientists to children & all in between.”
Aron Ambrosiani many people’s definition nicely, "I think the duality of museums is key to understanding/defining what they are. A museum is _both_ an experience venue _and_ a repository of knowledge. Stray too far away from either aspect and the special thing is lost." Museums aren’t one thing, but they are not all things. In defining too broadly we lose, and being two strict we lose.
Museum Transparency brought up the fact that museums are work places. They most certainly are. Many people shared how this act of defining seems silly given the real work places challenges. Others talked about how museums are often defined in one way for “the average” people and another for donors. Still more reminded us that definitions mean little if there isn’t any follow through on the mission to the people working in the organization.
Many important conversations also centered around what is the point in creating a definition. For some the definition is sort of navel gazing. Bob Beatty said, “I’ll be honest when I say I think we are the only people who *really* care what can appropriately dub itself as “museum.” It’s the most inside of inside baseball.” The challenge with these debates is that they take us away from big issues. Museums are colonial constructs, Wendy Ng points out, [and] debating the definition does not change this fact.” Luis Marcelo Mendes pointed to the socially constructed nature of museums, “A museum is a fiction we choose to believe.”
The flaws in museums came up a few times. Alli Burness mentioned how museums could be so much, can be, might even become that, if we allow ourselves: “I’ve always approached them as a creative medium to explore and reflect on our world and the human experience of it. And in so doing, build understanding, connection and belonging. Some hold and use a collection of objects to achieve that, others don’t. Museums dont see themselves that way tho.” Bronwyn Coulston also talked about the cracks and our ability to heal our field, “An imperfect idea, developed in inherently flawed times and cultures. Constantly evolving and occasionally managing to repair historic damage caused.”
In the end, all of this discussion is fruitful to the museum workers to keep us intellectually stimulated but mean nothing if we don’t put them into action for visitors. Many of us are making them central to life and communities. As Kajsa Hartig said, “Museums could be: A tool for humanity to (in participatory, educative + entertaining ways) make sense of life + society, to use for a better now and future, An experimental arena where public, private and civil society can meet in unique ways. A 24/7 resource always top of mind.”
Though museums cannot be the ideal for today and tomorrow if we don’t start and end with people. Our visitors, our staff, our posterity. Every single person who has or might be part of the collection and the organization. All these people are our raison d’etre. They use us how we imagine and in many ways we can’t. As Cynthia Heider said, “A museum is whatever the people who use it want it to be.”
Why does all this defining matter? Well, because our work matters. Museum matter. We aren’t just museum workers. We aren’t just buildings with collections. We are all the things listed above and more. We are the places people go to learn. We are the people who collect for the future. We are conveners of communities. We are the real in a world full of fake. We are the best of society and the worst—all there to remind people about both. We are humanity on display. We are nature in its most wonderous. We are what society needs today, tomorrow, and hopefully forever. As the Secretary of the Smithson Lonnie Bunch said, way better than me,

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Museum Verbs and Defining Who are We.

After the International Committee on Museums spent some time debating the definition of museums, many folks took up the charge on social media to give their own definitions. I’m inviting people to share their definitions, here and on social (and tag me); I’ll summarize your thoughts next week.

But this week I want to focus on a tweet by Dan Hicks who suggested instead of a definition we need museum verbs. The invocation was an important one. We’re in a moment in our field where we’ve spent a few decades becoming interactive. The ice cream museums of the world couldn’t have existed if the Exploratorium, Boston Science, Imperial War Museum, Please Touch hadn’t innovated interaction very early. (I know I’m missing early innovators of interaction in museums; feel free to tell me who in the comments.) While a social media-focused museum can be a lightning rod for us in this field, their existence highlights the fact that a big sector of our visitors and potential visitors sees museums as a place where you “do something.”

One might argue “see something” is a verb. “Just looking at things” is a common complaint about museums, often being paired “it’s boring.” It’s interesting because watching sporting events is a common American pastime. Certainly, ball games are places where you sit, something that’s barely even odds in museum galleries, and you get to drink beer while watching the main event. But I think the big difference in sports is that people know what to look for. Very few Americans don’t know what a home run is. You might not be clear on the rules for penalties, but if you went to a game you be able to say the team got the point. For museums, we often want museum to use the verb “look”  but we don’t tell them what to look for. I also think about diving at the Olympics. I don’t enjoy swimming in pools or anything that seems like exercise; I have definitely never done a flip off the high dive. But one time I watched the Olympics with a family member who dove for his college team. After 15 minutes, I felt I had enough knowledge to enjoy watching. As sports shows, some of the onboarding might come from the culture overall, or might just need a 15-minute conversation, but with that knowledge you become an engaged viewer.

The power of a little knowledge is one of the reasons interactives matter. I’m not well-versed in dinos. On a recentish trip to the American Museum of Natural History, I watched a group of unrelated people learn about the parts of a T Rex by putting together a puzzle. I’d guess the VR in the next room cost a whole lot more money (and it was fun), but even simple interactives empower people to know what to look for. Our visitors see and do in our galleries. Fostering these engagements with ideas and collections is key to our work.

What are the other verbs that highlight our raison d’etre? Teach is a big one. As a field, we have some mixed feelings on this, I think. We love when we teach with a capital T, like exhibitions and university classes. We also love the school tours, when we’re doing the annual reports and pitching program support to bankers. At the same time, we often pay educators less while expecting more. We often think of our teachers as being less than classroom teachers and our gallery staff as “just” teaching little kids. We even step away from the word education in general by changing departments to “interpretation,” as if using a fancier word will give the work more clout. As a field, we are proud of the verb teach when it is either prestigious or profitable, but otherwise we’re more ambivalent. Teaching is a core. It is extremely hard to teach humans, in general, and it is progressively harder to teach them the younger they go. If you don’t believe this, engage toddlers with Sol LeWitt, and tell me how you survived. Specialized teaching is an extremely important part of our sector, and something we should herald.

Seeing and teaching are verbs that connect to collections. But what verbs are bigger than the collection? In the states, the mall is in decline. Museums, many of whom are free at least once a week, are in possession, collectively, of huge areas of interior space. In the frozen winters of the north and the soul-sucking dry heat of the southwest, and every other climate in between, museums can come up with many verbs for our communities. We are spaces and places. These are nouns, sure. But we can use these nouns for people. After all, we’ve been using our collections, nouns all, to do good for people for a couple hundred years. They can convene, they can invite, they can ignite partnerships, they can allow, they can encourage, they can transform.

Museum verbs are only bound by us. Our traditions have given us a few verbs. Our innovators in the last couple decades have given us more. But what is the future of what we do as a field? We are the ones who decide. We are the ones who pick the verbs that ensure museums exist for posterity. So, what are your museum verbs?

Share your thoughts and your thoughts about the definitions of museums, either here or on social. Remember to tag me so I can reshare with our readers (@artlust@seemarao@_art_lust_)

Also, I wanted to note a couple awesome posts to read: JasperVisser’s take and Linda Norris’ post.