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
I wrote out my planned remarks here last week, but below are some of the highlights of what we really talked about.

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 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.

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 in 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 that 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 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? Share here in the comments or on social. 

What are your thoughts on audience engagement and change? Is there a line in the sand; is there too far when it comes to being visitor-centered? What is something you hope to see in the future of audience engagement? 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.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Who are we, museums?

This month, I want to ask us this question. As a field, who are we?

I have been thinking about this question at work for the past few weeks. I had started a rapid research experiment recently. I invite the whole staff to my office anytime between 2-3 on Tuesdays to answer one question. They get a cookie, and leave their desks for 15 minutes, interact with colleagues from outside their silo, and I get a bit more insight as we build our audience engagement plan. Most weeks, people give me great surprises. But, recently, one of my colleagues, a man with an impressive assortment of checked shirts that I consistently envy, said, “I think we can’t do this until we decide who we are.” It was one of those record-scratches-to-a-stop moments. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Then, I get home, confined to the couch with a terrible sinus headache, to find ICOM was debating the definition of a museum. A different sort of ache began. ICOM matters because museums are a global phenomenon. Is there a country without at least one? Over the years, I’ve enjoyed interacting with all the international museum folks at conferences, particularly at AAM. From those scant moments, I’ve garnered that, like many things, the happenings in America are different than those in the world. ICOM might not seem to matter to our workdays in American museums, but it does matter global. Why? For me, it is a sign at a high-level of what bureaucracy of our field thinks.

I have many thoughts about the ICOM definitions. Procedurally, I worry that many of the people leading this debate are not well-verse in practice (thanks for that clarification Suse Anderson) or in what visitors think. Good leadership is informed by others and on behalf of others. It is not deciding what is in your own best interest. Sure, some of the people working on the definition have been informed. But I’d love transparency on the ways that the ICOM delegates prepared for their role defining museums. As as Katie Eagleton brought up, who is this definition for? 

I’m particularly interested in the ways that the possible definitions by ICOM relate to the ways the people of those nations define museums. Susan Spero brought up a good point. Our field is more than casual observers see us, and our future requires us to go beyond the assumptions people make of museums. Absolutely. Tony Butler offers a publication that also resonated with Susan’s point. Both of these issues are important. People can only define museums on what we have now. We as professionals get to define museums on the future we will make.

But the gaps between the ICOM definitions and their people’s/ visitor’s definitions would be telling. Do these gaps happen because we have forward-looking, visitor-centered leaders? Or do we have these gaps because our leaders are not grounded in visitors or practice? The former is my hope, and I’m sure some of the people at ICOM qualify in this group. My fear is the latter is all too common, and I know some of the ICOM definitions reeked of naval-gazing, esoteric stupidity, and backward thought.

Why does it matter to get a definition? Or does it? I don’t know. I do think a good definition is a good way to show funders and foundations our collective vision of the field. I also think when museums are taxed, and in countries with different norms for museums, the definition can be a positive way to shine a light on the best path. But with all unfunded mandates, people are not being compensated to change. Should they? The status quo is the path already cleared. Many people on Twitter talked about how our actions as a field are a better definition of the future than any word salad a committee can produce.

But I’m curious: Who are we, museums? (As Sarah May said, we might ask, who is a museum? Who is it for?) 

I’d love every answer and all answers. In many ways, our discussions are the most essential way to move forward. ICOM would be well-served by invited huge digital debate by museums folks and the folks who go to museums, by then inviting thinkers to synthesize these thoughts, and then use that to make something worth voting yes for.

I’ll summarize your answers at the end of the month.

Please share, talk, and tell me. Tag me when you share (@artlust, @seemarao, @_art_lust_)

For your enjoyment, the ICOM definitionish:
Also, I'll put in a plug for my Medium post this week. I don't write there often, just when something feels important. It's an ode to my colleagues.

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

We are the Solutions to Access Barriers

This month, we’ve been thinking about access barriers. I took us way off the beaten path on this subject. While I do admit to loving a tangent, these last few weeks have been purposeful detours. In our field, everything is tight. Money, time, energy, goodwill…we have only enough if we are lucky. We try to solve problems and often look for the most parsimonious solution.

We’ve all been there. A grant comes in. We whip out our logic model. We figure out the program that gets us the solution the grant wants. This way of solving has been occurring for years in our field. But we also know that it hasn’t made an appreciable impact on the people coming to museums.

People see impact and changes when they don’t solve for “x” using the same old formula. This month I talked about two variables that are often ignored when we talk about access and equity: the way we do our work and the frames we use to judge our work. I chose these because often when we talk about access, we think about ways to get people to come. We forget it is a lot harder to change other people. It’s a lot easier to change ourselves. Of course, changing yourself requires a certain level of self-reflection. Being honest with yourself, as an organization, is hard. But when you can really look at yourself, your workflow, and the flaws in your assumptions, you are also in control of the changes you can make.

Now, I’m not an expert in throwing open the doors, but just one voice, trying to make this happen. I put it out to everyone. I cheered every time people tagged me in their shares. And, I liked every comment. There was one particular thread that came in through Twitter from Rebecca of Melbourne, Australia. I loved how she brought up so many issues, often combining structural issues with the related effects. I’ve been thinking about her comments all month. From the very start, we are often setting ourselves up for challenges. We beg people to come in but we have formidable ticket booths. We are basically setting up a contradiction. To add insult to injury our visitors’ desks are often a barrier (both physical and perceived to entrance), Rebecca notes.

At my organization, we’ve just started to talk out the ways our space might be accidentally signaling inaccessibility to staff. These conversations are hard. They take time. But we believe the outcome will be worth it. How many organizations are doing this?

The relationship between perceived barriers and physical ones are incredibly important. If someone is already uncomfortable with the notion of coming, what does a physical block do? Prove their point? Now, I understand the economics of tickets, trust me. No one in leadership in a museum can be immune to the financial responsibilities of keeping collections available. Rebecca’s point gets to such an important point. We do these things one way, say putting a ticket desk up in the middle of the lobby, but we don’t always interrogate what the perception of our conventional wisdom is, and as such, we ignore contradictions therein. Our ticket desks are often more like draw bridges, gatekeeping, rather than inviting people in. Then we wring our hands when people don’t show up.

Rebecca also mentioned another issue about our museums and how we entice people. I’m a big e-reader. I never check out a book before reading the preview. I love shoes. I generally try them on before I buy. I even taste ice cream before selecting my flavor. Our whole society has moved to a transactional model where previews are the expectation. That is, except museums. We expect people to pay upfront on spec. We are giving people no tools to assess interest or value, and then we can’t understand why people aren’t snapping up the tickets. (Rebecca’s full thread is, hopefully, listed below for you to read.)

Overall, my point from this month, and I think Rebecca’s, is that much of our accessibility problem lies in us, not our visitors. We need to be self-reflexive and honest. We need to add new voices, from within our organizations, to help ourselves see the ways that we aren’t actually opening doors for visitors. And, then we have to make the necessary adjustments if we are truly hoping to open doors.

For more, read this thread, starting here:

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Why Access Barriers Aren't Easily Fixed

This month, I’ve been thinking about access barriers. The idea of throwing the doors wide open is something many of us dream about. Foundations give real money for DEAI efforts. People speak about these efforts at conferences. Whole departments are focused on this work. And, yet, our audiences remain largely unchanged. Why?

Last week, I talked a bit about the structural issues inherent in our systems and how they may play a part in our access issues. Basically, when our staff is unhappy or overworked, it’s hard for them to make the visitor happy. What are some other access barriers?

We are. Wait, what? You? Well, not just you. All of us, me included. Museums, like all professional fields, are spaces policed by unwritten norms and regulated by our credentialing systems. We are rarefied and like it that way. And, as such, many of our ideas are resistant to other forms of thought. We loathe breaking our frameworks. Or worse, we have no idea that our problematic frames exist.

For example, many museums focus on issues like ticket prices or transportation as a way to remove access barriers. Both are seemingly good solutions. Decrease cost or increase ease at visiting and more people will come. I once stood in my workplace lobby in pajamas for more than an hour watching empty buses drive up to our entrance. We had waived entrance for the exhibition and paid for transportation (and pizza), and no one came. As I mentioned last month, I’m not one to be seen in ugly shoes or my pjs. I was that willing to put myself out there (it was a pajama party). But, those solutions are not getting at the reasons people aren't coming. Why? Because, we often see the "solution" to the problem in terms we have already determined. We have the "if we build it, they will come mentality." 

Diversity is another common thought problem. Diversity initiatives are often coded terms for including a certain category of person. Now, I say this carefully. People who haven’t been included need to be included. But don’t think you can fool people. If your recent interest in an underserved group will be unwelcome if it comes “coincidentally” when you have an exhibition by an artist of that same group. Your non-visitors are savvy—even savvier than you sometimes. People know when they are being played. And people don’t forget. Simplifying diversity is a short-sighted, and ultimately unsuccessful, way to increase accessibility.

Why do we do this? It goes back, in part, to last week. We’re busy and exhausted. We care, a whole lot, but we also need to get that grant report out. We’re strapped. And, so we pick simplistic solutions. But what is a better way to deal with this? First, as a field, we need to have these discussions. We need to think about the big issues, beyond ticket fees and bus tickets, that are keeping us from broadly growing audiences.

Putting concepts into boxes is easier than facing uncomfortable truths. For example, people might not care about the deep thought processes curators had. People might not want an educational experience. People might only come for a class. We need to accept people as they come. 

This kind of solving within our paradigms causes huge problems. I’ve many a time wanted to sing “it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” at low attendance events. We’ve all been there, I’d guess. Fabulous exhibitions with dismal attendance, brilliant talk that even your mom was too busy to attend, thoughtful classes without students. Of course, people not showing up is bad for business. An old colleague used to say 1 in 5 people spend money; more people walk in, more spend money. I don’t know if his stats are right, but he had a point. More people are better for business.

But the issue is also psychological. Staff needs to feel like they are going to succeed. Participation is one measure of success (we can talk about if this is good another day). I grew up in the rust belt after the steel mills closed. I get that times are hard all the time. But even in that kind of town, we’ve had a few wins. We’ve felt success. In museum work, if you are trying to bring in underserved audiences, you often find yourself caring a great deal, often without any wins.

So, what are some other big issues that you see? What are ways we are systematically putting up forcefields even if we say the doors are wide open? What are the ways you want to see us do better with accessibility?     

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

One-Person Bands and Museum Labor as an Access Barrier

When I was little, my uncle drove me to see a real big top circus. I don’t quite remember where it was, somewhere over in the farmlands near Santa Cruz, like Gilroy or Watsonville. Like so much of those valleys, I mostly remember the lush flatness, in this case with the red tent popping up like a mirage. I was younger than school age, and little from that circus visit remains in my memory.
One distinct memory I have, to this day, was of a single one-man, or we might say one -person band. He wandered around the big top playing music with his jiggered musical contraption attached to his body. As a kid, this one-person band didn’t seem all that extraordinary. The guy after him was on a unicycle juggling rubber chickens, after all. Seemingly without thought, cymbal hand and kazoo mouth sounded in time with keyboard hand and horn foot. Everything ordered, everything in time, everything easy.  

But, now as an adult, I am amazed at the guy’s ability to move his limbs in harmonious synchronicity. I can barely drink coffee and read my email some mornings, let alone play a full symphony alone. (Of course, I was four when I saw the guy. It might have been barely a harmony.)

I tell the story of the one-person band because I think many museum professionals feel like him. We are spinning and performing, and most people have no idea of the preplanning it takes to make it look so easy. But, most importantly, few museum professionals have a free hand or moment. We are just doing our best to keep from going off-key.

Last week, I asked what are the barriers to keep us from throwing open the doors. There are plenty. We might think of structural racism or the classism inherent in our funding structures. I hope to hear you articulate your thoughts in comments or on social.

Today, I’d like to call out a huge one. We will always find it hard to implement equity and access, metaphorically throwing open the doors, if our leaders don’t spend time thinking about how we do our work. We can’t serve our patrons if we are not thinking about the people doing the work.
Museums rarely have the funding to replicate positions. If the building operations guy is sitting with you in a meeting, there is no second building operations person at his desk. If you have a teen program running, there are no second teen programs person out drumming up business. While we might not play accordions with our feet while shaking maracas, most museum professionals are orchestrating huge amounts of disparate forms of labor all the while making it look effortless.

As a field, we spend a whole lot of time evaluating patron’s experiences (hopefully). Museums are for people, after all. But patrons are only a portion of the people in museums. Staff is an important part of the equation. The systems that staff work with can be empowering or inveigling. So much of our work is collective, a lifelong group project. But as a field, we don’t always articulate our work norms to each other. Our organizations often have people playing different songs, with earplugs on, instead of finding ways to perform together.

What’s the solution? Well, noticing each other, listening carefully, and trying solutions. We do this for our visitors (hopefully). Why not for staffing functions?

Recently, my amazing colleagues and I have started to articulate and improve many aspects of our work. For example, we are working out what needs a meeting and what can use an email, writing out process documents, and then putting these efforts into action. This is stuff that any workplace does, ad hoc, but we are trying to be purposeful and thoughtful. Why? Because while we want to do the real work, we first have to work out how to best keep our own sanity. If we can as a staff decrease the cognitive load of our everyday work, think of how far we can fly. I am humbled by how awesome my colleagues have been to take the leap with me. We’re not quite at the point where we can share all our efforts, though we will eventually. But, in a broad sense, we are trying to be purposeful in how we do our work, so we can free ourselves up to do our work better. BTW, Thank you. Thank you, awesome colleagues.

To take it back to this month’s topic, what is holding back our ability to metaphorically throw open the doors? Time and energy are finite resources. Are we using them well? Work practices can be a boon, helping you do more better. But efficient and effective work practices take thought and refinement. Most museum workplaces don’t place energy or thought into work practices as they focus their scant energy on collections or visitors. If you can spend real time on improving work, you might find yourself freed up, emotionally and with labor. With that freedom, you might feel giddy and free—so free you decide it’s time to plan to throw open the doors.

Managers have a huge part in this. Leaders often look at their best staff, and think, ‘hey let’s put them on this project.’ But what they might not realize is that they are potentially destabilizing that employee. They are asking the one-person band to jump on a unicycle. Now, maybe that performer can do that, but he will need time to practice and fall. Similarly, when good employees are asked to take on more thing, they will need time to fail. Many of our institutional efforts at throwing open the doors, add labor to staff. But, leaders don’t create the systems to understand how it impacts overall work. We are asking our staff to perform without a net with their hands tied behind their back. They can’t throw open the doors.

What’s the solution? Leaders need to realize access and equity isn’t solely about visitors. It’s about systems and staff too. They need to think holistically and carefully. They need to put in the effort to support their staff and try to support process improvements. They also need to honor the careful orchestration that happens in every museum in the country, with each museum professional, spinning, dancing, and performing amazing feats every day.


Also, please consider passing on your ideas about what keeps us from throwing open the doors. Tag me so I can add your thoughts to this month’s summary post @artlust on twitter, @_art_lust_ on IG, & @brilliantideastudiollc on FB). 

Thanks to Cynthia Robinson of Tufts University for talking out the one-man/ one-person band. I appreciate her reaching out and discussing it. I was worried one-person band wouldn't work since one-man band is common idiom. But we agreed one-person works--we are flexible, equitable thinkers after all. I write these things late in the evenings alone. Without a sounding board in person, I need your voices to help me. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Throwing Open The Doors

Recently, I was in Maine on a research trip/ quick family getaway. My children were fairly patient, partly as they don’t know there are families that don’t drag their children with them for work trips. As many a museum parent, I also assume I am dragging my children with me, often forgetting that they like museums. One afternoon we were wandering back from somewhere hoping to find something indoors to do, and we drove by this building. One of my children asked if we could go into the museum.

Prior to this, my children had stopped at every odd junk-shop-cum-museum off of Interstate 90. We had seen the oddest and least museumy sorts of museums on this trip. I was surprised they wanted to go into yet another non-traditional museum. I mean it had its doors open.

Walking in, I couldn’t help but ask the staff member about the doors being open. She said well, we wanted to show we’re open and our installations don’t have temperature control issues. We went in to find well-written labels, solid engagement strategies, and a kind, open staff member. I went much better funded museums and more well-published ones on this recent trip, and yet in my mind, I kept coming back to the Great Harbor Maritime Museum. This small museum summarized for me wonderful experience. People who worked there were happy and happy to see visitors. The ideas were conveyed in many different ways, and included engagement. The space included seating and felt comfortable. Most importantly, it felt accessible from the staff smiles to the big open doors.
Even now in my office, looking out over my rainy Ohio street, I keep thinking about that little museum. Sometimes, I wonder what types of unspoken norms and field-based myths are keeping me from throwing open the doors (climate control is keeping me, rightly, from actually throwing open the doors). We talk accessibility. But what are the things keeping us from making accessibility more than a buzzword? The list is long in my mind, but I’d love to hear what you think.

Why? Because, I’m hoping this space feels to you like that museum, a repository with the doors thrown open. Each month we will deal with a topic. I’m start the month, a bit like this with some musings, and a big question. The next week (or two depending on the month), I’ll tackle a part of this topic. Sometimes I’ll ask a friend or colleague to write a post. Then at the end of the month, I’ll summarize all the responses people gave to my questions. Ideally, throughout the month, you will be sharing ideas here in the comments or on social. If you share the post, please tag me (@artlust on twitter, @_art_lust_ on IG, & @brilliantideastudiollc on FB) just so I can see people’s comments. I hope that we find is a big space with so many ideas, answers, and surprises. This sort of dialogic model to me is an essential way to be more accessible.

Back to this month’s question…tell me—what is keeping museums from emotionally (and figuratively) throwing open their doors?   

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Rowboats and Magic Feathers: Reflections on 13 Years of Museum 2.0

Woman reading a book on a beached rowboat,
1925. Image via State Library of Queensland
(an institution I love).
Dear friends,

This is my last post as the author of Museum 2.0. I'm thrilled that Seema Rao is taking this blog and museum community into its next chapter. You can find all my archived Museum 2.0 posts here, and you can follow me going forward at www.ofbyforall.org and www.ninaksimon.com.

Today, I want to share a bit about what Museum 2.0 has meant to me.

Counselors talk about marriage being something you recommit to every day. When I think of Museum 2.0, I think about the commitments I made to myself, to it, and to you--and how those changed over time.

I started the Museum 2.0 blog in 2006 for three reasons:
  • I'm a self-directed learner. 
  • I love to write. 
  • I wanted to build a bigger professional network, and this felt like a safe (and nerdy) way to start.
At the start, the blog was an experiment. A way for me to learn out loud. A way for me to call up a hero and ask, "can I interview you?" My only commitment was to myself and my own learning. I blogged three times a week. I explored things that made me curious. I was nobody, rowing into the dark with my pen, sharing thoughts about the glinting fish and ships on the horizon.

2006 was a good year to start a museum blog. Within a few months, I was having rich conversations in the comments section with new friends around the world. I'm still close with some of the very first people to read the blog--strangers whose comments, encouragement, and advice have guided me for more than a decade. I felt like I'd rowed into a friendly harbor of creative, nerdy museum misfits who were eager to share and learn together.

But within a year, the dynamic started to shift. Suddenly and disconcertingly, I wasn't nobody anymore. I became a kind of "it girl" for museum participation. Thousands of people started reading the blog. Approaching me at conferences. Asking me if I could consult. I'll never forget when one of my heroes, Elaine Heumann Gurian, cold-emailed me to ask if I would consider reviewing a paper she was writing. It was like the God calling to ask if I would give my opinion on a new planet.

I felt like I'd written my way into a winning lottery ticket. The response to this blog changed my life. I spent 2007-2011 traveling the world, doing participatory projects and consulting gigs, and writing my first book. I became a little bit famous--in a small niche of a small field--but famous nonetheless. None of that would have happened without Museum 2.0.

I am incredibly grateful to Museum 2.0 readers giving me this lottery ticket. For believing in me. For wanting more from me. You pushed me to accomplish more than I ever imagined. You helped me interrogate my ideas deeply. You gave me confidence, guidance, and stories for my books. You gave me support as I struggled to lead a museum through a participatory rebirth. You gave me confidence to grow and share.

But the increase in readership and attention had a dark side, too. By 2009, the blog I'd started as a place to learn out loud had become the engine of my career. Now, I was writing Museum 2.0 for the old reasons, but also some new ones:
  • it established and built my credibility. 
  • it opened doors to new professional opportunities.
As you might imagine, this led me to approach the blog with a different attitude. I still loved writing and learning, but I became more externally motivated-for good and ill.

On the good side, I made deep connections with people who became treasured mentors, colleagues, and editors. I met perfect strangers through Museum 2.0 who enriched my thinking, invited me to far-off countries, and helped shape my books. At the same time, the pressure shifted. I started to slide from valuing external guidance to valuing external validation. I wanted your approval. I started to think of readers less as friends and more as clients who were counting on me to deliver. I kept to a rigorous schedule and never took a week off. Even weeks when I was giving birth, on vacation, or exhausted from challenges at work, I blogged. My attitude was, "readers don't care what's going on with me. They want the content."

This blog became like Dumbo's feather. I loved it, but I also let it overpower my sense of self. As long as I was holding it - as long as I was pumping out content - I could soar. But I was terrified to let it drop. Without the blog, I presumed I could not fly.

Through the hard years - the years of books and babies and being a new museum director - I thought about quitting. But I always came back to two reasons to blog:
  • I learn so much from writing. If I stopped blogging, I suspected I wouldn't reclaim that time for some other beneficial pursuit. I'd probably just answer more emails. Blogging is precious because it is an opportunity to reflect in writing. 
  • I love the Museum 2.0 community, and I felt responsible to you. The love felt good. The responsibility felt daunting.
In 2015, as I was writing my second book, The Art of Relevance, my grip on that magic feather loosened. I started to realize that my credibility and capability are not tied to hitting "publish" every week without fail. I started to realize I would still feel motivated to write without a deadline. For the first time in nine years, I gave myself permission to write when I wanted. It felt liberating, and scary, and good.

From 2015-2019, the blog continued to be my go-to tool for reflection and learning. Readership went down a bit, and I was OK with that. I was proud of what I wrote, and I still loved the opportunity to share and grow with others. But I also started to notice two big challenges that ultimately led to the change I'm making now.

1. Museum 2.0 is about participation, but I never fully succeeded in making it participatory. Because I'd built the blog originally to do my own writing and learning, I rarely invited guest writers. I never experimented here with models for collective writing. As I got more "famous," I got even more stuck in feeling like I had to deliver the voice and content readers expected. While MuseumCamp and other in-person events built amazing community space, I never figured out how to bring that collective energy online. I wished Museum 2.0 could break free of me and become more dialogic, led by a strong writer AND online convenor. I believe Seema Rao is this person and I hope you'll join me in reading and participating as Museum 2.0 grows. There will be new experiments and approaches - alongside the archive of what we’ve built thus far.

2. I'm transitioning to a new phase of personal freedom and professional exploration. I need to let go of some things to make room. I'm trying to let go of the magic feathers of external validation I used to clutch to legitimize my existence. I'm trying to let go of the illusion that someone else has their hand on the throttle of my potential impact. I want to build some new boats, row to new places, and not worry that I'm letting someone down by following my own curiosity. You're welcome to come along. I'll keep writing and sharing and learning, both through my new work with OF/BY/FOR ALL and on my own. I’d love to keep talking and learning from you. I treasure your perspective, even as I try to lessen my need for your approval.

I believe in the spirit and vitality of everyone who has contributed to Museum 2.0. Your attention, comments, care, and challenges have meant the world to me. You are the reason it was so hard for me to make this change. But I see it as a gift. For myself, a gift of freedom. For Seema, a gift of a platform. And for all of us, the gift to keep growing and sharing together.

Museum 2.0 is a place where we dream together about a more inclusive, vibrant, democratic cultural sphere. A place where we imagine a world where every voice, every story, every creative expression matters. I will always feel proud and grateful to have rowed alongside you in this place, towards that dream, together.