Monday, September 29, 2008

Passionate Experts and the Museums that Avoid Them

I'm not a fan of Olympic gymnastics; I don't really know enough about the sport to be blown away by the action. This summer, however, one little video clip changed that. I was surfing the NBC Olympics site when I stumbled on Bela Karolyi, watching Nastia Liukin's floor routine (unfortunately, this video is only available in the US). It's a 2 minute revelation.

For those of you who can't or choose not to watch the video, Bela was sitting in NBC's New York studio with Bob Costas, reacting energetically and effusively to Nastia's routine. He pounded his fist, clapped his hands and repeatedly exclaimed, "yes, yes!" and "she is an Olympic champion"--and I felt it. Watching him watch her didn't teach me more about gymnastics, but it exposed me to a world of passion about it. It taught me how to care about gymnastics. And that got me thinking about how bad museums are at doing the same thing--using passion to promote visitor engagement in new content.

Museums shy away from presenting passionate views. It's ironic that we expect visitors to fall in love with our artifacts and exhibitions without ever presenting Bela-like models for that kind of passion. I think there are many visitors who wander into museums the same way they'd wander into a foreign sporting event--they don't know what's going on, why people care, and most importantly, why they should care. At a sporting event, there are little Belas everywhere yelling at refs and hooting with glee. By following the cheering, newcomers can start to understand what parts of the game are most valued, and get a window into the deep love some fans show for the sport.

Museums don't have a cheering section. As visitors walk through galleries, it's easy to wonder: where does this stuff come from? Why is it here? Who cares? Museums do a decent job addressing the first two questions, but we rarely tackle the third. The use of an "objective" authoritative voice makes it hard for visitors to assign value or significance to items with which they don't already have a connection. Most museums train their docents to maintain an objective, neutral tone, so they aren't conveying their passion either.

This passion avoidance affects more than just how visitors perceive museums--it affects the kind of content we can convincingly convey. I was recently in a meeting at a museum with a wonderful natural history collection, discussing how we might use their collection to convey urgency about global warming, deforestation, and other natural resource issues. One of the participants commented that scientists are often passionate, even spiritual, about their work when you get them alone--but they never show that face to the world. The fear of professional stigma and the desire to appear objective silences their passion. The love that drives these scientists is off-limits to exhibit designers, even if that love is the key to unlocking related appreciation on the part of visitors.

One astute participant pointed out that "you have to love nature to want to save it." Everyone nodded in assent... and then continued to grapple without how we could inspire visitors' love without presenting love of our own.

It's not going to work. Sure, some people are passionately inspired by museum exhibits--but those are probably people who are already fans of the content or the institution. There are many more visitors walking in without context, without comprehension. They may leave with some facts, but that's not enough to teach them to love the game. This relates to this post from last year about the Creation Museum--when Paul Orselli commented:
The Creation Museum has gathered the "holy trinity" (sorry!) of storytelling in passion, people, and purpose.

Each aspect of their "three ps" is clear and unapologetic. Director Ham has a missionary zeal in getting his simple message across ("everything in the Bible is literally true AND science supports it.)

By contrast, who, most often, delivers the message of science museums? Marketing and Development departments by and large. By the time the "marketing package" is developed for an exhibition much of the original purpose and passion are wrung dry.
Let's not leave passion to the NBCs and Creation Museums of this world. We need to let out our inner fans, the Belas that got us into this business in the first place, and give ourselves permission to tell the deep, passionate stories. We need to tell the funny stories, show our anger, gasps in delight, and help visitors do the same. If we can "co-anchor" our standard content with some passion, we can start help visitors tackle the "why" of exhibitions along with the "what."

And then maybe someone who didn't get it before will learn how to care.

19 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

I would almost agree, but there is one thing that makes me cautious about "passion". Faked "Passion" is an essential part of the omnipresent advertising. The advertising gurus teach how important "passion" is to sell your product. And this is exactly what makes the omnipresent advertising so disgusting to many people. And I personally think that exactly these people are visiting museums. Maybe to take a little rest from the "passion", who knows.
Nikita Braguinski

Paul Orselli said...

To continue your sports references, museums still haven't cracked how to make "fans" (that is, visitors with real passion, as Nikita astutely noted above.) Fans want to buy your t-shirt, and wear it because it's cool, and tell everyone about your amazing place.

Fans generate real passion and enthusiasm. And it's not just sports teams that have fans --- plenty of science/tech organizations have fans (Apple, Google, Make Magazine)and even some museums (The City Museum, Museum of Jurassic Technology.)

Let passionate staff enthusiasts at museums work with visitors (and potential visitors) to create "fan-worthy" museum programs and exhibits instead of the staff whose "official job" it is to try and whip up enthusiasm for the latest bloated traveling travesty.

You'll know it's working when you have ticket scalpers out front!

Pete said...

"Passion" is a good thing, when the focus is on the museum's central "reason for being" or promise: what it offers the community that is truly unique and real.
This is the problem that Nikita refers to: the faked advertising/branding. When the promise is real, everyone on staff can connect with, and transmit it. And this guides the curatorial dept to work that reinforces the promise.

Nina Simon said...

Thank you for reminding me about the problem of false passion. It's always astonishing how the volume and intensity seems to go up when commercials are on.

Pete, have you seen this "real passion" convey itself successfully in the work of curators and others? Can you share an example of a time when that passion really broke through to visitors?

BodhiBadger said...

The exception to the "absence of passion" rule is museums organized and run by amateur enthusiasts--train "buffs", devotees of airplanes, or boats. (Funny how these are often involve a) guys and b) large transportation artifacts.) Often these museums run on nothing but passion. Sometimes they have trouble translating it into something the non-enthusiast can grasp.They may be passionate about small, obsessive technical details that elude the average viewer.

There is also a tension between passion (emotions centered on personal meeting) and accuracy (adherence to the authoritative "facts"). Historic house tours illustrate both--sometimes the most passionate and entertaining tour guides are spouting absolute guff. On the other hand, those that smoothly and professionally adhere to the approved script may be boring as all get out. How to capture the best of both?

Paolo Amoroso said...

An a example of a space science team passion -- and adrenaline: the Phoenix probe lands on Mars.

CJ said...

I totally agree but I'm noticing a lot of fellow commenters are assuming it will be done wrong; let's give ourselves some credit that we can do it right.
Adendums:
- Passion is not necessarily frenzy.
- Fans feed on passion, they don't generate it (fans don't have fans).
- Passion is not faked, that's called hype, and it's easy to spot.
- I have seen passion engage visitors. I have done it.
- Challenge: Take a few merely curious friends to see something you are truly passionate about and let it rip. See what happens. They may not become devotees, but I'd bet they'd warm up quite a bit (and you have a great day with your friends into the bargain - it's very satisfying, trust me).

Matt Kopans said...

There's a cultural challenge that you're not accounting for. Unlike sporting events, museums are usually considered quiet, reflective places. Creating the equivalent shows of passion would require those who are most closely associated with the organization (Board Members, staff, longtime visitors) to completely rethink the way they experience the museum. Adding cheering sections without a cultural change is only going to ostricize your closest supporters

Elizabeth Stewart said...

Bodhibadger makes an important point about passion's sometimes tense co-existence with accuracy. Inherent in the Creation Museum's passionate advocacy of its viewpoint is an insistence on ignoring or eliding facts that don't coincide with its intended message. Surely that's not an interpretive approach that museum professionals should strive for. There are plenty of spaces where emotion--or even aggression--is the sanctioned mode of discourse (sports stadiums, movie theaters, shopping malls, amusement parks). Museums have always been another kind of space, for reflection, appreciation, contemplation, and a more self-directed education. That function depends on putting a commitment to accuracy first. I think the trick is conveying museums' particular kind of passion--one that deepens and enriches intellectual *and* emotional life--with enough resonance to get folks coming through the doors regularly.

Pete said...

Nina, as an example of passion, what first comes to mind is the Cooper Hewitt Museum. The exhibits are consistently well focused and interesting. e.g. a past exhibit "Made To Scale". One must admit that it is a small facility and highly specialized in a very narrow subject area. Which helps, of course. But the passion comes through clearly.

Paolo Amoroso said...

At times, passion may be as simple and quiet as a smile.

Eric said...

Another thing that differentiates passion from hype in a museum setting is that genuine passion should be shown by staff/exhibits/etc. towards the subject matter and not the museum itself--any institution engaging in the latter is rightly subjected to ridicule (or at least charges of self-promoting hype), in my opinion.

Let the excitement about your subject show, and visitors will become passionate about it, too, and will in turn start talking up your institution and wearing your t-shirts. Museums and their staff are too often too self-conscious to let their passion shine.

Nina Simon said...

Wow, there's a lot of passion around this post. I like Eric's point about content, not the museum itself. But what about those well-meaning volunteers who are a little too enthusiastic with their passion and will drone on to you forever?

The best passion is highly edited. I think there's a great opportunity for exhibit designers to be distillers of passion.

Jason said...

Edited passion! Sounds a bit scary. One needs to be careful of shutting down one's passion. Passion is a very personal and an emotional thing for each of us. That well meaning volunteer that goes on and on is just showing his or her passion the way they know best. A bit of good training in demonstrating, how to listen to and work with visitors and how to respond to visitors would help. Unfortunately, one's passion for a subject can just take over and we just start talking and talking and talking and next thing we know we have lost our audience. How many times have we all done this? I know I have.

With regards to "fake" passion...What if marketing and program people worked together. Yes, I agree that marketing usually puts out "fake" passion. However, they do know how to create a clear message, understand demographics and have the tools and mediums to communicate that message i.e. get the word out and be heard. While program/floor staff have the content knowledge, a gut level passion for the subject matter and care about the community. Marketing is the "agent" and floor staff are the "stars." Sounds like a perfect combination.

Lisa R. Tucci said...

I have devoted the last 10+ years to get the Italians interested in interesting their public. If you complain about the U.S., you should try Europe's museums!
My mantra: nobody goes to a museum to take an exam at the end of the day!
In fact, just the opposite: they want to learn, yes, but enjoy themselves.
Until museum experts realize (and they have in London), that their competition is: the movies, TV, taking walks and even eating out, they will not engage their viewing public.
Thank you.
http://www.touringtracks.com

Nosey said...

There is at least one place already where visitors can tap into a museum's passion, and that's in the voices of passionate observers of, lovers of, and makers of art - check out one of hundreds of audio tours around the world where these voices come through loud and clear. Granted, some audio tours are institutional, but many connect visitors one on one with speakers for whom the subject of a museum or exhibition is a deep and prolonged passion.

danb65 said...

I have found in my years working in the museum field, the only "Passion" for your site is the passion for profits. All places I have worked at, including the one I'm at presently, believe in the "Find em and Grind em" method of operation. Find the visitor, even if you have to promise them programs or exhibits that don't exist, get them in the door, grind out every possible dime you can, then continue to grind them out the door in the quickest time possible. Repeat the process.
The museum I am at now(Ventfort hall,Lenox Ma) is eliminating any pretense of being a historic site(even though they pride themselves on being on the National register) and have abandoned any educational and historic programs in favor of public performances and event rentals. I believe that this is the sorry way of the future for museums

Nina Simon said...

Danb,
I'm sorry to hear you feel that your institution has strayed so far from its core mission. I assume that either the institution is just struggling to stay open--and looking for any way possible to do so--or has seriously lost its way.

You have a couple options:
1. leave.
2. raise a stink with board members.
3. try to convince staff that you can be a successful institution both WRT bottom line and mission. There are lots of good examples of places that have done this - COSI Columbus is one of my favorites.

Good luck!

M said...

Wow ... as a patron who stumbled upon this post via another Twitter link, I'm surprised and disappointed to hear such negative feedback from institutions to this idea of sharing passion with the public.

I agree with CJ and with the comment that points out the bizarre assumption that ya'll will "do" passion poorly. It's a good thing attendance doesn't depend on the staid, protective, closed-mind responses expressed here.

Why in the world would people just intuit interest and excitement in your exhibits and institutions? The "build it and they will come" thing doesn't apply when you trade in what much of the public is going to consider elitist material. Movies, professional sports, concerts, free libraries and their programs, etc., are indeed competition.

If you don't reach out to people and tell them why you think/people think your place is great ... they're not going to show up and ask you. You won't grow attendance, fans, patrons, or parents with children who could grow into passionate supporters and patrons of museums and their kind of content.

This is just crazy. backward thinking! I'm glad to see some local cultural presence on Facebook and Twitter, but the activity hasn't been energetic. It's not just competition for money and attendance and subsequent interest/passion/support, but it's competition for any attention at all.

Cultural institutions can't be stuffy, reserved, stick-in-the-muds stuck in the past when they are exactly the kind of entertainment, enrichment and family experience people in recessionary times are looking for ... quality experiences that build knowledge and interactive sharing.

Families won't spend the money to come, though, (especially over a movie or something more commercially top-of-mind) unless you show them why it's a great idea.

You don't have to be fake ... that's just bad marketing. Invest in good marketing and time/conversation to building a campaign and long-term plan to build, maintain and grow real passion. That's what the arts, history, culture is all about ... why do we want to quash it with what comes across to the public as quiet, legacy snobbery?!