Wednesday, June 22, 2011

You Can Be A (fill in the blank)! ...Yeah, Right.

When I was in high school, we had an all-school assembly featuring a guest speaker who did a little thought experiment with all of us:
Speaker: How many of you can draw?
A couple kids raised their hands.
Speaker: How many of you can sing?
A tentative arm raised from a choir kid.
Speaker: How many of you can dance?

Speaker: If you were in kindergarten, you all would have raised your hands each time.
This was an aha moment for me at the time about self-confidence and self-evaluation, and it's one I've carried into my career. I started out working in science centers, where there is a very strong underlying message pushed at visitors again and again: "You can be a scientist!" I've often argued that art and history museums should adopt this approach and encourage visitors to explore their potential as artists or historians, not just audiences for content.

But now I've started to question the value of this message. There are many ridiculous exhibits that prompt you to "be the surgeon!" or "be the authenticator!" You will not actually become an archaeologist based on an exhibit, and the message quickly starts to feel silly and disingenuous.

The goal of the "you be the X" message is limited. It focuses on the mechanics of the roleplay and not the affective experience of what it would really be like to take on a foreign challenge. From my perspective, the most powerful outcome of role-playing is a sense of empathy for someone else's experience. What would it be like to live in a tenement? What does it feel like to take care of dying people? What is it like to discover something and have no one believe your findings?

I'd extend this to the long-standing debate about "You be the curator!" experiences in museums. I don't think it's useful for us to argue about whether people are or are not curators; nor is it useful to assign them job descriptions based on simple interactives. Instead, I'd rather we focus on experiences that say, "you can help us do our curatorial work," or "here's how a curator might look at this--coming from that perspective, what would you choose?"

It may be less sexy to say "you can try on another person's experience" than it is to say "you can be an X." But it's also more realistic (and a little less pushy). It encourages experimentation, discovery, and self-confidence. It embraces amateurism.

In some ways, the "you can be an X" argument precludes amateur involvement--it subtly suggests that the only way to be a scientist/artist/curator is to do so professionally. I still support the vision for museums and cultural institutions to help people discover new career paths and avocations. I'm just as charmed as the next person when someone says, "I became an engineer because of an experience I had at a science center." But those people are one in a million, and for the other 999,999, I'd rather we focus on encouraging exploration on an amateur level. I want to hear a lot more people saying, "I'd love to mess around with this on the weekend," or "I think I'll try to find a meetup group for that," or "I'm going to find my old paint set."

And so now when I remember that day in high school, I don't draw out the message that "you can be an artist/musician/dancer." Instead, I hear: "you can try lots of things, be competent at them, enjoy them, and learn from them. Even if they scare you."

That's a message I'd love to be sharing with visitors. What about you?
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