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.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Do we like our visitors?

Me at the Norman Rockwell Museum



Before we get to today’s topic, I want to start with a thank you. I’ve received some many notes, emails, DMs, and tweets of support this month. Your responses are so cheering, and I’m thrilled to get them.

I started this month with the metaphor of fitting into big shoes. Those of you who know me in real life might know my love of shoes. So, I’ll end this month with another shoe metaphor, of sorts. When I got those little pings of support, I feel like I could dance. In some ways, though, it was a little selfish. I got the praise, but no one else got to enjoy those good vibes. What I’d like to see is that this digital space becomes a place where we all get a chance to feel those good vibes. I imagine each month as a chance where we can collectively engage on ideas, and where I share this amazing platform with everyone. Think of this being a dance party, where I am happily sharing my dancing shoes. And I must really like you all because I don’t share shoes lightly. :> But, we’ll talk more about how this collective space will unfold next month. Today, let’s finish up on this month’s topic, what I learned during my time as a consultant.

This month, I started with looking at some broad reflection on our field and visitors before looking at some of the great ways that we do participation in our spaces. I also posed a big question: Do we as a field signal that we like our visitors?

I, myself, don’t know the answer. And I was really interested in hearing people’s answers. I want to give a shout out to Bob Beatty, who shared this topic on Twitter and Linkedin. Shares like that are what get these questions to the biggest possible audience. Thanks to his efforts, we had some wonderful feedback. (In subsequent months, I’ll include visitor feedback by name after getting express permission from the writer. But today, I’m not going to attribute these comments, as I am in a bit of a time crunch on my post. I’m on my way to a camping trip without wifi in the Maritimes.)

The big themes from comments could be broken into three broad categories: we think we do; we don’t even think about it, and we don’t. The first set of comments signal something I have noted throughout my career. Most people don’t develop program and spaces with the express hope of failing. We do this work for visitors and people. Our challenge is that we can’t step outside of our frames and beliefs. Our lack of understanding about visitors makes it hard for us to really create visitor-centered projects. The rise in audience evaluation is promising, certainly. But, one respondent remarked that we particularly like audience evaluation when it supports what we already believe. We need to as a field be better about hearing the difficult truths our visitors might share.

Another theme in comments was how much of our field seem immune to visitor feedback. One comment particularly struck me. We see some of our most front line, security, work as being immune to visitor feedback. Also, other people mentioned how cold our spaces are, both temperature and emotionally, and how we persist in that behavior as if our visitors are not customers who need to be treated well. Now, temperature is something we will always have as a challenge due to collection care. But, how many peoples do a good job of explaining why our spaces are cold?

Finally, the majority of comments fell into the idea that we don’t. Most people talked about the ways we maintain inequity through our hierarchical thinking. We see ourselves as better than visitors, when as one colleague says we just read a different book. And, our contempt for visitors is obvious to people. We do this both in our physical spaces but also in the ways staff speaks about visitors in our meetings and our hallways. I am curious if we would want our physicians speaking of us this way. If we wouldn’t want to be discussed this way, should we want our clients to be discussed in this manner? The ways that we communicate internally about visitors, is a signal about how we, as organizations think of our visitors. They are not just people who help us write grants to banks to support us doing what we want to do. They are our partners in keeping and sharing collections and ideas for the greater good for society.

What’s there to do then? Well, this is a hard one. The persistent negativity about visitors isn’t something any one person can solve. I would say that this can’t be something that just one or two departments can fix. Museum education and front of house are often placed in the challenging position of “standing up” for visitors in internal meetings. Frankly, everyone should be standing up for visitors. Without them, we can’t keep our doors open. Everyone should try to put themselves in the place of what is best for our organization, which includes what is best for visitors. Everyone should work hard to speak kindly about visitors. Everyone has to sign on to the social contract that museums are for visitors, and then act accordingly.  Until we agree and act as if visitors are central to our work, we as a field will never accomplish our goal of being equitable, accessible spaces.
--
Looking forward, Nina will be back sharing more thoughts about her blog next week. After that we’ll spend the latter part of August, we’ll talk a bit about our next few months in this space. I’m basically driving into the wilderness as soon as I finish posting this, but when I come back to society next week, I’ll check comments here, at Twitter (@artlust), and at IG (@_art_lust_).

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Feelings and Participation



Me with a friend

As I keep saying, I’ve been to a few museums of late. In reflecting on the sample, I’ve made some broad reflections on museum workers and visitors. Today, I wanted to think about participatory elements, something so essential to this blog.

Before I do, I wanted to tell you I'm not picking the best of the best, but rather ones that I illustrated my themes. In this field, we are definitely low on praise and even lower on profit. Awards can be incredibly gratifying. Awards can show higher-ups the value of our work and they can be important tools for showing funders results. And, I have been known to give out an award or two. (Psst, also consider entering the Muse Awards come 2020, but that's a story for another day)



This list is instead some good things I’ve noticed, without any saying they are the best. Why? As important as excellence is, shared success is equally important in this field. Our visitors often see museums as a genre, not unlike hospitals or libraries. They understand we are different, but they don’t see us in competition with each other. We should see ourselves like those board games, where all the players have to work together to win. If all museums get better, we have more people who like going to museums, which increases museum revenues, and makes the field more stable. I’d much rather think of museums as all rising with the tide, then being torpedoed one by one.

Lumin at Detroit Institute of Art

Now on to the interactives…I’ve been thinking a great deal about the function of interactives in museums. We often use them to add in extra content we couldn’t get into the label or assess people’s learning. Both of these seem natural as we are in the business of ideas and we are adjacent to formal education systems. But, while adjacent, museums differ from formal classrooms in numerous ways. People go to school because they have to or want to in order to get to their goal. (People go to museums for leisure.) People go to school regularly over a period of time (and to museums intermittently, occasionally, sporadically, or rarely). But, to me, the biggest difference is about how learning is connected to feelings. Think of the classes where you learned the most. What are your feelings about your teacher? Those feelings developed over hours of classroom time with a human. Museums get our visitors for an hour or two if we’re lucky. And we don’t even have the carrot and/ or stick of grades. We have people’s good wish and natural interests. With this in mind, when we produce participatory experiences, while our impetus is to serve our power users with extra content or “check for understanding” interactives, there are so many other ways to use interactives. Let’s think about these other kinds of interactives (and I use this word loosely) in terms of the feelings they elicit.  


Sewing interactive at the Museum of the City of New York

Engaged: Engaged is the underlying feeling with the in-depth interactives I mentioned above, but only for people who feel learning a lot more or proving you’re right. Many people come to museums and already feel they don’t get it. For them, in-depth interactives can support feelings of not belonging.  For some visitors, the feeling of engagement comes from being connected to ideas quickly. Making things is one way to feel engaged quickly. Tate Exchange in London, for example, had a wonderful moment a couple summers ago where people could embroider their immigration stories on a patch to add to a collective wall. This activity went with an artist’s work where she told of immigration stories. Doing is also learning in Museum of the City of NewYork’s sewing machine interactive. This interactive combines an actual sewing table and an interactive. You’re supposed to sew on the line in order to earn a few pennies. I watched people do this interactive. Every person left that interactive realizing how hard piece-work was. That interactive did more for that exhibition than any one label.  

The Cloisters

Enthralled: Immersion is a hot topic in museums. I wrote about it last year and I talked about it this year on Emily Koteki’s podcast series. For me, immersion should drop you into an experience. Immersion is not about dropping people into interpretation; it's about allowing people to feel things. One of the most immersive museum interactives isn’t one at all. The Cloisters is a set of buildings on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. You walk out of the 21st century and into Medieval Europe. Technology is, of course, a hot topic in immersion. In this case, I find the most interesting ones to be made by artists. Anyone who has ever spoken to me in person about VR knows I love Laurie Anderson’s VR that was at MASS MoCA last spring. You walked through a chalkboard world; your wonder drove your interaction. The Pointe aCalliere in Montreal does a good job of disseminating actual content in an immersive light/ content show that overlays an actual archeological site.

Surprise: We don’t need to do much to surprise our visitors, given how pervasive traditional galleries are. That is why I want to applaud those museums that offer surprises to visitors. Surprises are those moments where you often hear unrelated social groups chatting. I was at the National Portrait Gallery in London, and there was a peephole to look at an anamorphic image. Person after person was surprised and intrigued enough to ask a stranger what was happening. That’s huge. Sound is often a good surprise in spaces. The Hampton Court Palace also in London did a good job in their spaces to have ambient sound that evokes the past of their spaces.   

XYZT Light interactives


Joy:  We rarely think about the feeling of joy when we work on museum galleries. But I argue this is one of the best things we can add to our visitors’ lives. One of my favorites was XYZT at the Peabody Essex Museum a few springs ago. People were transfixed by the space. It was one of the rare times in a museum that I heard people laughing with happiness. The American Museum of Natural History had two wonderful moments happening this summer. Their T Rex show brings joys to anyone who loves a giant, feathered predator. But dinosaurs are sort of a freebie. I was impressed by the joy people felt about the projection of a wave at the entrance of their Unseen Oceans show. People of all ages were oohing and ahhhing, and most importantly smiling.

mesmerized by T Rex at AMNH

Equally mesmerized by waves at AMNH

Overall, I invite us all to think about what experience you want the visitor to feel and why. As you add more interactive or participatory elements to your space, I invite you to balance a variety of feelings. Don’t ignore the “light” emotions of joy and surprise. You don’t have the hours your favorite teacher had. Your chance to be memorable is in a very short window. Do you want to be memorable for only hitting one kind of visitor?  

Speaking of visitors, last week I asked if you think most museums act like we like our visitors. I’m asking for responses here or on social. Next week, I’ll compile people’s thoughts (with credits) into a summary post of this month.  

Also later in the fall, I’ll be focusing on Front of House staff. I’d like to hear from the security guards. Please help me get responses to my survey. Pass it to all your friends who were once or are now guards.

Find me on social @artlust on Twitter and @_art_lust_ on IG or leave me a comment. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Visitors in Focus



As I said, last week, I’ve been to a travelin’ girl for the last couple of years. Not quite a troubadour, as my karaoke skills are more humorous than sonorous, I’ve enjoyed being on the road. In writing this post, I couldn’t help but think of that old Johnny Cash song, made famous again in hotel ads. The song’s lyrics are basically a litany of places he sang. And, I could do something similar, though that would help no one.

So, instead, I am offering 3 posts this month about what I learned from visiting more than 300 museums. Last week, I talked about what I learned about museum workers. This week I wanted to think about visitors.

What did I learn?

1. People are there on their time off. 
We know this, perhaps, but I think this point is important to underscore.

Most full-time museum staffers are there on the weekdays. When they leave their offices to grab a coffee or unthaw themselves after working in freezing offices, they might notice galleries filled with seniors, school children, and people pushing strollers. Thinking about museum hours, we are most open when other people work. People who are able to come during these hours, therefore, become important audience segments. That said, other than school children, people who come during the day are there as part of their leisure time. Now, before you think, wait, but they want to learn something. Yes, that can be true. Leisure time encompasses many different behaviors. Some people want to learn or feel enriched during some of their leisure time. (I graphed leisure, fun, and museums for an old post, if you want to think more about the relationship between those concepts).

But there are other reasons people go to museums on their leisure time. Many go to socialize. It’s a great date spot, I’ve noticed. Some go because they feel like they should, like parents attending with their children. Some go because there is air conditioning. Some go because it’s too inclement outside to do anything else. Now, I am not going to keep going through the possible reasons for museum visitation, as others like Susie Wilkening does it better.

But, what I would say, anecdotally, is that almost every visitor walking in the door at the museum is there on their time off. Think about your time off. Do you want to be spoken down to? Do you want to feel stupid? Do you want to be lost? Do you want to be frustrated? People are giving us their time off. We need to make them feel like we value this precious gift.  

2. They look a bit nervous. 

Our spaces can be very subtle.

No one wants to get yelled at. So, people are often visiting our spaces in high alert mode. The fear of being yelled at is a particularly good way of turning off future visitation. And, you might say, I’ve never seen anyone yelled at in my museum galleries. But, visitors often see museums as lump sum prospect. So, bad experiences in one museum become connected to their concept of “museum” in general.

Add to that, we aren’t always all that human-centered. I have dragged my kids, museum kids mind you, through many a museum gallery. I know which of you don’t have seating. I have sat on the floor with my children. Now, I will say, I’ve never been yelled at for sitting on the floor. And, as an old school gallery teacher, it’s a pretty comfortable behavior for me. But most visitors wouldn’t even think to sit on the floor. Instead, they’d walk out of that museum deciding these are not spaces for them.

Add to this, our designers are careful to pick seats that work with the aesthetic of the art. I’m a snob, so I get that. But our visitors are worried about getting yelled at, and then we put in seats that sort of vaguely look like art. This is like leveling up the discomfort levels for our visitors.

Finally, we like to hide the goods. Galleries are often up some stairs, bathrooms behind a wall. We make our signs appealing to us, not instructive to our visitors. Basically, we create spaces for the power users and the people who know our unwritten rules. These are behaviors that foster the inaccessible nature of our institutions. If we are committed to diversifying audiences, we need to think hard about the behaviors that feel exclusionary and change them.


3. They read labels. They really watch videos. 

Oh, another week talking about labels.

I remember doing an observation study when I was very pregnant with my daughter. I sat on a bench pretending to draw while I watched behaviors. It was a bit demoralizing to see people avoiding the panels we’d worked so hard to create. But people sure did read labels.

More than a decade later, I still saw people reading labels. I ached to ask people why they read the labels they did. But I’d have mortified my family. I did notice many people were scanning down the label quickly as if reading on a phone. Studies indicate people are reading more text, but more quickly, often skimming for specific information. I wonder if they are doing this with the labels.

I was most surprised at how much time people spent watching videos. Many of these videos were without captions (work on that y'all), and some were really boring. And, yet, everywhere I went people sat through the videos. Why? Well, I would guess in part because watching moving images is a regular practice for most people. Rarely, outside of museums, do people stand and ponder something static. But, almost every day, you get information from a movie image. I also think many people understand videos to be a type of orientation. So, the video feels like a common mode of communication and a lifeline to help you get a handle on what you will see. 


4. Selfies aren’t the reason they are pulling out their cameras.

Any behavior shift can feel uncomfortable or suspect. Cell phones in the galleries often get a bad rap. Alli Burness, Meagen Eastep, Jenny Kidd, and Chad Weinard gave a great talk ages ago about cell phone photography/ social photography. They discussed how personal photography wasn’t just about selfies (and in fact often wasn’t). In my visits, I noticed very few people taking selfies. But many were using the camera as a note-taking device. Capturing favorites and even photographing the label to remember the name of the artwork. 

As a museum educator, I've spent a career cajoling, inviting, dreaming that people will be engaging with collections. With cell phones, they are. People were using the phone to take “artsy” images. Our collections were, in essence, sparking creativity day in and day out through cell phone photography. 

We need to rethink cell phones as distracting to the experience. Visitor's experiences are often heightened by cell phones. They are able to do something, and they get to use paradigms they already use in their everyday life. They might be a different way of experiencing collections than before the advent of the cell phone, but different isn't wrong. (And, registrars out there, I do say all this about phones with the caveat that cell phone photography cannot put collections at risk.) 

The issue about cell phones boils down to allowing people to enjoy our galleries in ways that work for them, not in the ways we decide. There is not one way to enjoy museums. You don't need to read the labels (I often don't). You don't need to listen to the audiotour. You don't need to agree with the curator giving the talk. When we allow for multiplicity in engagement, we open the doors to more people being engaged. And, finding new audiences is a numbers game. (I wrote more about this recently). 



5. Interactivity is the best way to get intra-group social experiences.

I’d talk to anyone anywhere. But most people don’t speak so readily to strangers. I noticed when I was at a station doing something, people would talk to me. For example, at the Museum of the City of New York, there was an interactive about sewing (which I’ll discuss more next week). The interactive was about piece work. Two people talked to me about how terribly hard the seamstresses must have worked for their meager wages. In other words, that interactive made strangers discuss the point of the exhibition and relate it to their lives. Holy grail of museum engagement right there. It wouldn’t have happened beside a panel, and I don’t think it would have happened around a collection object. But, the position around a shared physical engagement allowed the shared moment of conversation.

Next week, I’ll write more about interactivity in the galleries, so I’ll leave it here.

To conclude, I’d like to ask you all a question. Do you think museums act like they like their visitors?

In all my observations of visitors in galleries, I sometimes wondered if some museum professionals liked the visitors they were serving.

Museums sometimes are so focused on scholarship and scholars they lose sight of their visitors and their visitors' needs. Now, before your hackles go up, I acknowledge we serve many masters. Scholarship is not an insignificant part of our work. But, scholars and visitors have different, often opposing needs. For many museum professionals, scholars are easy to serve. It's basically like planning party for people exactly like yourself.

But visitors needs require stepping outside ourselves and our desires. This issue can be compounded by our motivations. Many people go into this field because of the collections, myself included. There is something quite different intellectually in connecting objects to people vs connecting people to objects. Centering people is not natural for many museum professionals. They focus on Educating (with a healthy dose of talking down to) and they forget you can’t educate people who aren’t there. Spaces often project an attitude of superiority or disinterest in the visitor's engagement; no one wants to be talked down to.

Knowing more information doesn’t make you smarter, it makes you more knowledgeable. This difference is essential to our work. It is not intelligence that separates museum workers and visitors, it is facts, ideas, concepts. To paraphrase a fellow museum worker, it’s just that we read different books. Keeping this in mind, our spaces and our actions should be about sharing ideas without making people feel dumb. Above all, we should show people that we like them and we should express that we like that they are in our spaces.

At the end of the month, I'd love to have a compilation of people's answers to the question if they think museums show they like their visitors and how. Share here in the comments or on social.

---
And, if you really just wanted to read my song, try this section. Feel free to sing it with a Johnny Cash roughness…
I've been everywhere, man.
I've been everywhere, man.
Many a collection rare, man.
Programs and interactives to spare, man.
Of museums, I've a-had my share, man.
I've been everywhere.

I've been to
Akron, Chicago, St. Paul, Minnesota,
Salem, Cincy, Toronto, Iona,
Santa Cruz, Philly, Glasgow, Ottawa,
London, Jersey, Miami, Tacoma,
Phoenix, NYC, Orca, LA,
Manchester, Lancaster, Worcester, and, I'm a killer.

As always find me at @artlust on Twitter and @_art_lust_ on IG.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Hello Museum World!


Hello World! Or maybe hello museum world! I feel a bit like a child walking around in someone else’s, slightly bigger shoes taking over this wonderful blog. The metaphor certainly works in terms of filling big shoes. But, I like that metaphor for another reason. Children see play and imagination as their job. Filling big shoes isn’t scary; it’s something to enjoy and pursue with zeal. I am taking this challenge in that way—a wonderful, playful exploration. I hope you join me on this romp (and pick me up if I wobble). This month, I wanted to share some stories from my last two years as a strategy and content consultant. (Previously, I had worked at the same museum for 17 years.) I went from lots of change in one place to help many places with their change. And, while over the next few months, I'll share things about me, I wanted to write today about the field.

So, when you visit more than 300 museums, parks, and historic sites, what do you learn? I thought I would kick off my tenure around here by sharing stories and reflections about my visits. This week, I wanted to start with us, museum and cultural workers. In these last two years, I have spoken to hundreds of colleagues around the world, both in person and on social. I’ve learned so much from all of you, and a little about us as a field. Here are my top five reflections:

1. We Care: I know this might seem obvious, but it is worth calling this out. We are a field of people who truly care about our work. We are not in this for the 9-5, and most of us work well beyond the average work week. This is a hard point to illustrate with a story because every story I will share for the next few weeks is about the care we put into the work. Each label, I assure you, is a testament to the care of scores of museum workers. Each time a front walk is plowed in the snow, each time someone helps a visitor find their way to a gallery, each time you see a funny social media post. The care we put into our work is the fabric of this field. It makes me immensely proud to be one of you at every one of my visits.

2. Front of House is Hard Work: While I did gallery teaching for many years, for most of my career, I’ve had a desk and a phone in non-public space. A portion of our sector lives their work lives in the public realm. These front of house workers, including visitor experience staff and security guards, are often the ones taking our missions to the people.

I was so impressed by the front of house workers. On a very hot day last month, I tromped into the Dyckman Farm House in Manhattan, glistening from the heat and the trek, to see a smiling gardener invite me to sit down in the shade. Another time, I walked into MASS MOCA with my two elementary-age daughters. A guard knelt down to tell my daughters there were some interesting works in this gallery that could be touched (and he pointed out everything else is look only). He spoke to them as humans (not with a baby voice), and he seemed like he was happy to see us. I attempted to do some of the interactives in the National Museum of Scotland with wonderful encouragement from the education staff there. Let’s just say my pedal power is not so powerful, but I felt supported and encouraged. Overall, our front of house workers very often put our field’s best face forward.

3. Some of Our Staff are Listening: It’s hard to remember a time before Museum 2.0, and Nina’s advocacy for interactivity in our gallery spaces. So many museums have taken up the charge to make their spaces engaging on different levels. And while interactivity is up in general, I was particularly impressed by the number of museums who are proactive about visitor feedback and prototyping.

I saw places where museums were being transparent about how they do their work. My favorite, perhaps, was the prototype space at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle. As they were readying for a huge revamp of their spaces, they turned a gallery into a prototype space. My favorite little section was a place where people could vote on the styles of labels. My children particularly loved watching a technician/ scientist work on processing an avian taxidermy sample. Different strokes, perhaps. But, both of these sections were drawing back the curtain, if you will, on the work of museums. I wholeheartedly believe museums seem more vital to visitors when they know we are a changing, evolving field. When we show we are growing, we invite people to see our changes.

4. Some of our Staff still Needs to Listen: As a field, we still have so much growth. Take labels, for example. Many of our labels seem like the text that time forgot. They are written for a populace that is largely non-existent, people without Google on their phones and infinite attention spans. Now, I say this as someone who has written scores of labels and taught others to write them. I have definitely written some poor labels in my life. (And I will be writing much more deeply about labels in an upcoming post).

But for the sake of this list, I use labels as an example of a place where we as a field have not done a good job of evolving. There is nothing in our work that is so sacred as to be above scrutiny. Being critical of every element of our work, and every expectation, can only improve our practices.

5. Our Staff is Taxed: I wrote a book ages ago now about Self-Care. It started as an act of self-care myself. I was tired intellectually, and I needed to find a better way of being in this field. I was so glad other people liked the book. But, in writing that book, I also found people came to me about their problems. I was happy to listen (still am), but I realized something was fundamentally wrong in our field. My book was an individual helping other individuals. Certainly, caring for yourself is important.

But I think we as a field need to think about why so many of our professionals are feeling taxed. As I said above, our visitors might not see this exhaustion when they walk in. But burnout leads to job turnover. Losing trained people is like throwing away money. I don’t have the answer, but I have been trying to find systemic ways to embed wellness into the ways we run our museums.

In conclusion for this week, we are doing good work--you are doing good work. It can be hard, and often underappreciated, but it makes a difference. Next week, I'll talk about my reflections on how visitors seem to feel in our galleries.

N.B. In an upcoming post, I'd love to think about guards. If you have been a guard, ever, consider taking this survey. I'll make anonymized data available to anyone who asks.

I'll be checking comments, obviously. But, I'm easy to find on social @artlust on twitter and @_art_lust_ on IG.

Monday, July 01, 2019

Unleashing Museum 2.0

I spent last week with the OF/BY/FOR ALL team at the Skid Row School for Large Scale Change. At the end of the training, we each wrote a statement in the form of “I used to believe / now I believe.”

I wrote: “I used to believe that leading large-scale change was about cultivating and sharing my energy and passion. Now I believe it is about building platforms for partners to hone, grow, and share theirs.”

In the spirit of this belief, I’ve decided to unleash the Museum 2.0 blog as a platform for others to share their energy and passion. After 13 years of blog being my own personal stage for learning and sharing, it’s time to open it up.

For that reason, I’m thrilled to announce that over the next two months, I’ll be transferring ownership of Museum 2.0 to Seema Rao. I’ve been lucky to call Seema a friend, mentor, and co-conspirator now for several years. Seema is a brilliant museum educator, a generous spacemaker, a prolific writer, and a creative troublemaker. She is committed to community participation, equity, and innovation in museums. Seema inspires me for her ability to share her own voice and share the stage with others. I know Museum 2.0 will grow richer with Seema at the helm - and I know she is eager to learn from you too. You can meet Seema on Twitter and check out her own fabulous history of blogging here.

Here’s how this transition will work:
  • In July, Seema will jump in as a guest blogger, sharing some stories and lessons learned from visiting 300 museums in the past two years. 
  • In August, I’ll come back to share reflections on the past 13 years of Museum 2.0. I’ll also share more about how you can continue to follow my writing and work. 
  • In September, Seema will take the reins, start building a relationship with you, and share her vision for a multi-vocal future of the Museum 2.0 blog.  
I am so grateful to you for being along this 13 year journey with me. Your comments, emails, guest posts, and questions have spurred my learning and shaped my path. As a heads up - I’m taking the month of July off the internet (I prescheduled this post). So I won’t respond right away to your comments, emails, and questions. Please know that I appreciate you. I’m excited to reconnect in August and share more about what Museum 2.0 and your participation has meant to me.

Until then, I’m thrilled to invite Seema to take the stage, share her brilliance, and learn more about yours. Museum 2.0 will always be a place where we experiment, learn, and commit to building inclusive, relevant, joyful organizations. I can’t wait to see what Seema brings to this blog and to us all.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Who’s Coming? A New Free Toolkit for Respectful Audience Surveying

Michaela Clark-Nagaoka surveying visitors at a MAH event.
Note: this is cross-posted on OF/BY/FOR ALL, where you can find more tools and stories for building more inclusive organizations. 

If you want to involve new people at your organization, you need to know who is coming - and who isn’t. Today, OF/BY/FOR ALL is introducing a new free resource - a guide to creating and implementing demographic audience surveys that are accurate, respectful, and useful.

I remember the first time I understood how powerful it was to have demographic data about our participants. At the time, I was leading the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. We were three years into a dramatic transformation to welcome new people in new ways. For my first three years, we got a sense of who was and wasn’t involved based on observation and gut instinct. We tried things. We checked out the crowd. We noticed if people were younger or older, more or less racially diverse.

But after three years of ad hoc observation, we were hungry for hard data. We realized our gut instincts could only take us so far. There was a lot we couldn’t see - like economic class and sexual orientation. And there was a lot we were assuming - about race, gender, and age. We decided to make a commitment to collecting better data about who was and wasn’t coming.

We discovered that was not an easy thing to do. We talked to colleagues in other institutions who were struggling with the same questions. No one had a playbook of answers. We ended up working with two sets of consultants, funded by two different foundations, for over a year. Those expert researchers taught us how to conduct truly random surveys, how to train our team, how to ask sensitive questions in a respectful manner, and how to analyze the results. The outcome was a simple, powerful protocol... but our process in getting there was anything but simple.

That’s why we decided, as part of our first year of work with OF/BY/FOR ALL, to demystify audience surveying with The Who’s Coming toolkit. We’ve teamed up with Slover Linett Audience Research - with generous support from the James and John L. Knight Foundation - to write this toolkit. We wrote it for people like us: busy professionals who want to do a better job capturing and analyzing demographic audience data. In this toolkit, you’ll find step-by-step tools to help you write a survey, share it with a truly random slice of your audience, and analyze the results. You don’t need funding or a consultant to get started collecting data. You can do it yourself, with your staff and volunteers - and this toolkit.

In my experience, collecting good demographic data can help you smash stereotypes. It can help you make smarter strategic decisions and better programs. As one small example, in our very first round of data collection at the MAH, we learned that the audience coming to monthly free First Friday events was wealthier, whiter, and older than the audience for ticketed Third Friday festivals. This finding fundamentally shifted our perception of who attends paid and free programs. It made us ask why, dig deeper, and understand a lot more about what makes a program welcoming to whom.

The Who’s Coming toolkit has two parts. The first section tackles HOW to design and implement random audience surveys. The second section tackles WHAT to ask. While both parts are rooted in practitioner and expert experience, the WHAT will keep evolving as our collective understanding of identity changes. We wrote this toolkit from a US-centered perspective, and we know some of the demographic terms might be different in other countries. If you have questions or suggestions to make the toolkit more inclusive, please let us know.

Until then, I hope you’ll read it, share it, and most of all, USE IT. You are free to download, share, excerpt, and use this toolkit however you want. And if you do use it, we’d love to hear how it goes for you and what you learn. What gets measured gets done. When you measure demographic data, it accelerates your ability to make positive, inclusive change.

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

A Long Interview as I say Goodbye to the MAH (and Thoughts on the Privilege of Leading Change)

Some of our courageous team. We are strong together.
I'm in my final week at the MAH. It's everything I hoped and feared: sweet, exciting, sad, poignant, and full of delicious treats and surprises from my loving, zany colleagues.

Geoffrey Dunn, a fabulous writer and collaborator, just published a big cover interview with me in our local weekly, the Good Times. We talked Abbott Square, community issue exhibitions, surfing, and the beauty and struggle of community-driven change. If you're curious to hear more about what I'm most proud of in my eight years at the MAH, I hope you'll check it out.

I was proud to work with amazing colleagues to lead major change at the museum. We made it a more inclusive, relevant, and successful place. It was not easy. But it was needed. And it was worth it.

My favorite question Geoffrey asked me was about engaging with people who were critical of the transformation of the MAH. Here's his question and my full answer (which was edited down for length in the published article).

Geoffrey wrote: 
Some of the changes you imposed on the museum, including Abbott Square, generated criticism, mostly from some of the old guard types who wanted more traditional explorations of art and history.

Here's my full response:
Not everyone liked how we, and I, led the MAH. But as a leader, I have to weigh those small number of critical voices against the hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic people who got newly involved - including many who had never felt welcome in a museum before. For every critic, there were literally a thousand new people telling us how grateful they were for the changes.

In a lot of ways, I’m embarrassed I spent as much emotional energy on those critics as I did. I had to remind myself that every minute I spent worrying about someone who didn’t like what we were doing - someone who was never going to like what we were doing! - was a minute I wasn’t spending on someone who could and would benefit from being involved. Over time, I learned to bless and release those critics, so I could focus on the people who were ready to engage.

When I think of the loudest critics of our work, I think of people who wanted the MAH to be a more exclusive, elitist, academic place. I think that’s the wrong vision for a public institution. I think it’s the wrong vision for Santa Cruz. For a museum to survive and thrive today, it must be relevant and meaningful for many people from many backgrounds. It must sway to the pulse of the cultural community in which it resides. It must be radically inclusive, constantly working to invite new people to connect for new reasons. That’s what we tried to do at the MAH.

And these changes were not just my doing. The board hired me with the specific mandate to make the MAH “a thriving, central gathering place.” I hired community organizers and creative convenors. We made it our mission to open the museum up. To younger people. To Latinx people. To people who were unsure if their story, their art, their voice mattered in our community. We made the MAH a museum of “and” - art AND history, participation AND contemplation, loud Friday nights and quiet Tuesday afternoons. The friction, the hybridity, different people from different walks of life colliding through art and history and public life - that’s what building a more connected community is all about.

People often are afraid to lead change because they know that some will resist that change. That’s true. But it’s also true that if you are changing an organization to be more inclusive and relevant, many, many people will fall in love with the change. They will thank you for the change. They will push you to keep changing. I don’t see leading change as hard or painful. I see it as a great privilege and I feel lucky to do it.

***

To all the inclusive changemakers out there: I honor your courage. I honor your struggle. It's worth it. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

But What if it FAILS? Using the FMEA Tool to Analyze the Potential Effects and Impacts of Failure

You know the feeling.

You think your plan will work.
You present confidence to everyone around you.
You fire up the crowd, energize supporters, and rally the troops.
But at the same time, you're terrified you might fail.

I've spent many days hustling and nights stressing over projects that seemed just on the edge of falling apart.

Then, I went to an amazing training led by Becky Margiotta, and she introduced me to a tool that helped me focus during the day and sleep well at night.

That tool is called Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA). FMEA is a quick, systematic way of analyzing:
  • which parts of your plan could fail
  • which of those potential failures are most likely
  • which of those potential failures would cause the most severe consequences 
  • which parts of your plan you should focus on strengthening to avoid likely, severe failures 
FMEA comes from the worlds of systems engineering and the military. It's used in many industries where failures can be catastrophic (i.e. hospitals, nuclear power, aeronautics). But it can also be useful in any situation where you want to get a clearer understanding of what failure might mean and how you can avoid it. For example, we share it at OF/BY/FOR ALL bootcamps to help cultural and civic professionals identify and address fault lines in their plans to involve new communities. You can use it for anything.

Here's how you do it:
  1. Make a list of all the possible ways that your plan could fail. These are your failure modes.
  2. Assign each failure mode a score from 1-10 for "likelihood" and another score from 1-10 for "severity."
  3. For each failure mode, multiply the "likelihood" score by the "severity" score to get the total score.
  4. Sort your failure modes by score. Focus your energy on finding ways to mitigate the high scoring failure modes. Don't let yourself be distracted by the low-scoring ones--they are either so improbable or so minor in impact that they are not worth sweating.
Here's a silly example we made up at the last OF/BY/FOR ALL bootcamp. The plan in question was to create a parade of 100 giraffes down the main street of a small town. As you can see, while bootcampers came up with several ways the parade could fail, there was only one ("can't get 100 giraffes") that would be both likely and severe enough to sink the project. So we focused our mitigation energy on getting the giraffes.


Here's a more serious example that our OF/BY/FOR ALL staff team created one month before we launched the Change Network program. Here, you can see that there were two failure modes we honed in on (1B and 3). Based on this analysis, we decided to focus on ensuring that videocalls would work and that we had enough staff time to support our First Wave teams. We acknowledged--but didn't sweat--the other stuff. 


I love this tool because it lets you get all your anxiety out on the table and then empowers you to realize most of your fears are either highly unlikely or do not have severe consequences. It generates clarity and confidence - fast. You can focus on what matters and put unreasonable fears in their place.

Here's a PDF template of the FMEA tool you can download and use if helpful to you. If you try it out, let me know how it goes. And if you have other tools that help you focus and remove stressful distractions, please share them in the comments.



Thursday, April 11, 2019

Guest Post by Martin Djupdraet: Let the Decision Makers Do the Audience Research

This guest post is written by Martin Brandt Djupdræt, Head of research and presentation and a member of the management at the Danish open-air museum Den Gamle By (The Old Town). I met Martin last year at the MuseumNext conference. I was impressed by his commitment to putting visitors first - and his technique for inviting more of his colleagues to do so as well. In this post, Martin shares a simple yet effective way to involve staff at all levels in conducting visitor research to drive new perspectives and decisions. Note that Martin uses the word "survey" in a slightly more expansive way than is typical in the United States.

At Den Gamle By we have set ourselves a goal to broaden the perspective of those in responsibility and to ensure the management will take our audience seriously. Den Gamle By (“The Old Town” in Danish) is an open-air museum about urban life and the local museum of the city of Aarhus. It is the second most visited museum in Denmark. What we have done is quite simple, but it works: we require decision makers to do audience research themselves.

Learning experts have pointed out that when people are involved in a subject and actually experiencing it, they are likely to learn more. Interacting with visitors and engaging their emotions is a method used by many museums. But direct involvement with the audience is not necessarily a method used by museum management. Good museums listen to their audiences and the public before they make changes, but my guess is that most museum managers let others do the visitor research. Our experience now is that different lessons are learned when the management participate in collecting the data themselves.

Our new type of research was developed last year though workshops with museum researchers John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking. We wanted to understand the decisions visitors make while visiting and the impact of the visit. There are two elements of the research: tracking and interviewing.

Here’s how it works: a staff member from the museum meets a randomly selected person at the entrance. With the visitor’s consent, we follow and observe them during the entire, noting what parts of the museum they visit and when. The same staff member then interviews the visitor three weeks later.

Visitors are asked:

  • why they chose this museum,
  • what they noticed especially during the visit,
  • whether they interacted with anyone, and
  • whether they had talked to anyone about the museum after the visit, and what about

To make sure this knowledge is put to use in developing the museum, the management and curators are part of the team who carry out the survey. Managers have to leave their desks, and track and interview ordinary people they never would meet in their daily work or at the meetings they normally spend time on.

Before doing the survey, most of the management and curators felt they knew the museum and how visitors use it quite well, but it was an eye opener for us to spend an entire visit with one of the guests and interviewing them some weeks later.

What surprised us? The curators were surprised by how important other parts of the museum besides the historical content were for the visitor. The F&B manager and the head of HR were surprised by how many objects and stories the visitors were absorbed in. This has also given us insights into the work of our colleagues and made us appreciate their work to a larger extent. Now we all have useful and inspiring stories about visitors’ choices and the impact the museum had on them.

Another observation was the importance of food and drink. In our trackings we could see how much time the visitors spent on the museum’s eating places and the great social importance these breaks had. Something we learned about food through the interviews was that the guests consider the food at the museum as part of the museum's storytelling. This insight has encouraged us to focus on food and food history as a priority topic at the museum, and a colleague is going to work particularly with that subject.

This research has also given us confidence in choosing the core stories of the museum. For example, a woman in her 20s said that Aarhus Story, a new permanent exhibition about the city of Aarhus, had made her proud of being a citizen of Aarhus and that she developed a stronger sense of belonging to the city, because the exhibition showed her parts of the history that she could connect with. We were pleased and humbled that such an impact was possible. This observation along with other similar observations has already led to new decisions. They were part of the reason why we chose to skip the easy and light crowd-pleasers in our planning of new elements for 2019, and instead went for activities where the museum had a deeper knowledge, good exhibitions and good stories to tell. Through the research, we gained the courage to go for more difficult and ambitious activities and more profound stories.

Visitors have always been a focus for the management, but the research have personalized our audience and they are discussed differently now. As the head of finance described it: “I normally look at whether a task is well done, financially possible and efficient, but now I also consider more seriously how a visitor would feel and react to the changes we plan.”

Does it take time to do this research? Yes it does. Time which could be spent meeting with important people and dealing with important strategic considerations. But none of these worthy activities is more important that meeting the audience and taking their thoughts and actions seriously. Not one.

Is an individual observed in this way representative for all the guests? No, but the reflection shows that it gives new insight, and it certainly ignites the decision makers’ imaginations. Those who have tracked visitors up to now have spent maximum a whole working day altogether on tracking the visitor, the interview and gathering the information. That single day has been an eye-opener for the curators and other decision makers. In addition, we have made it easier for all of our staff to gain insight by meeting our visitors face-to-face by doing a half-hour shift as a welcoming host at the museum entrance. More than 20 staff member working at the offices tried this new practice last December. Most of them were thrilled about the talks they had with the visitors and back at the desk their experiences were discussed with colleagues. These efforts have taught us all through simple involvement that there are many different ways of understanding and using our museum. We have not just learned it, we have felt it.

Four other Nordic museums are now doing the same type of tracking and interviewing. In the year to come we will compare our observations, and will also be happy to share the result with you and others who might be interested. But we know already, before even looking at the collected data, that the project has been a success in Den Gamle By. It has broadened the decision makers’ perspective and made our audience even more important when new exhibitions and goals are planned.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

From Risk-taker to Spacemaker: Reflections on Leading Change

Fifteen years ago, my boss kicked me under the table. I was a small fry at a big museum, volunteering for a project I had no business taking on. My boss and mentor Anna often encouraged me to stretch the limits. She protected and supported me in leading projects far beyond my job description. We had a push-pull relationship; I’d ask for opportunities, she’d say yes but also help me understand how far I could safely go. And when I went too far over the edge, she’d give me a well-placed kick.

I didn’t have the words at the time to identify what Anna was doing. She was being a spacemaker for me and for other creative risk-takers on her team. I learned this terminology later, from Beck Tench, who studies, mentors, and leads institutional change in public space. As Beck once put it, risk-takers need "space-makers" to provide them with the support, the creative license, and the encouragement to try new things, fail, and get up again.

As a young professional, I identified as a risk-taker. I was proud to be seen as a maverick. Success to me looked like taking bigger and bigger risks, and being recognized as the person who had created the project or made the initiative happen. My ego was tied up with making the thing and forging the path.

It was only later that I started to feel that the greatest impact comes when you stop focusing on what you can create and start imagining the space you can make for others to create. I didn’t want to blunt my activist energy, but I did want to find more effective ways to channel it. I realized my potential—if limited to my own creative abilities—was finite. But if I used my abilities to empower and make space for others, the opportunities were infinite.

It took three things for me to change my perspective on this. First, a deep and growing conviction that community participation is valuable—that every person can make a meaningful contribution to an effort if given a well-constructed space in which to do so. Second, growing confidence in myself—that my achievements would not be belittled nor diminished by the participation of others. And third, recognition of the privileges I enjoy, and the sense that it is my responsibility and joyful opportunity to share those privileges and related power with others.

When I think back on the work I’ve been proudest of over my past eight years leading the MAH, the projects that come to mind are those where I made space for others to lead us to new heights. In some projects, like Abbott Square, I was in the driver’s seat but invited hundreds of community partners, large and small, to take a turn at the wheel. In others, like the Community Issue Exhibition process, I was there as a fundraiser, networker, and sounding board for our brilliant team as they went deeper and further with community than I knew how to go.

In all these projects, I had to take a risk. I had to put my own credibility on the line. I wasn’t leading from behind. I was leading to clear space. As time went on, I felt more and more confident doing that to empower others rather than doing it for myself.

My favorite moments at the MAH are small, immediate surprises. I walk in on a day off and there’s something weird and wonderful happening that I had absolutely nothing to do with. A bonsai festival. A harp concert. An empathy fair. I know these things are happening because of our amazing, generous, risk-taking staff and community partners. And I know I have a small part in it as a spacemaker who carved out room for the idea that it was OK for a museum to be all these things to all these people in our community.

I’ve come to think of spacemaking as a form of allyship we can all practice with anyone whose growth and creativity we want to support. We make space when we ask, “Maria, what do you think?” We make space when we say, “I‘ll back you up on this no matter how it turns out.” We make space when we find the money and the materials and the partners to make someone’s big dreams real. We make space when we define its limits, with a helpful redirect here or a kick under the table there. And we make space when we hold the hands of risk-takers, take a deep breath, and step over the line alongside them.

Generative leadership isn’t about the person in charge generating all the ideas. It’s about the leader creating the conditions for new ideas and projects to keep bubbling up from many voices and perspectives. When we make space for others, we make space for possibilities beyond our imagining.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Sharing Power, Holding Expertise: The Future of Authority Revisited

This week, I've had multiple conversations with colleagues in the arts, symphonies, and urban planning about the fear professionals have about "losing control" when opening up new opportunities for people to participate. Their questions made me think about a blog post I wrote in 2008, The Future of Authority.

I want to reshare this post with you today for two reasons:
  • We are still grappling with fears of losing control as we open up organizations to new participants and new communities. This post provides some useful perspective if you have these fears or are grappling with those who are fearful.
  • While I originally wrote this post to advocate for more participatory practice (i.e. letting museum visitors contribute and collaborate in museums), I now see this as a crucial issue also for more democratic and inclusive practice (i.e. welcoming people with more diverse perspectives and backgrounds to participate meaningfully). Around the world, we see that participation is a meaningful entrypoint for new communities. New communities don't just want to consume. They want to help shape organizations to more fully represent and embrace their realities. Inviting participation, letting go of control, holding expertise, and sharing power is critical to inclusive practice.
  • Our collective understanding and savviness about the power online platforms wield--for good and ill--has greatly increased since 2008. As I reread this post, I think about the incredible opportunities (and risks) for cultural and civic organizations - rather than publicly-traded tech companies - to create and manage platforms on which people connect, share knowledge, and participate in civic life.  
With no further ado, enjoy this post.

The Future of Authority: Platform Power 

(first published October 2008) 


I have a lot of conversations with people that go like this:
Other person: "So, you think that museums should let visitors control the museum experience?"
Me: "Sort of."
Other person: "But doesn't that erode museums' authority?"
Me: "No."
One of the primary fears museum professionals (and all professionals) have about entering new relationships with audiences is the fear of losing control. For hundreds of years, we've owned the content and the message. While we may grudgingly acknowledge the fact that visitors create their own versions of the message around subsets of the content, we don't consciously empower visitors to redistribute their own substandard, non-authoritative messages. So when people like me start advocating for the creation of tools and opportunities by which visitors can share their stories, reaggregate the artifacts, even rate and review each others' creations, museum professionals of all stripes get concerned. If the museum isn't in control, how can it thrive?

We have to change the framing of this conversation. There is a difference between control and expertise. In these conversations, people often say, "don't expert voices matter?" and my emphatic response is YES. Content expertise matters. Content control shouldn't.

Museums should feel protective of the expertise reflected in their staff, exhibits, programs, and collections. In most museums, the professional experience of the staff--to preserve objects, to design exhibits, to deliver programs--is not based on content control. It's based on creation and delivery of experiences. And in a world where visitors want to create, remix, and interpret content messages on their own, museums can assume a new role of authority as "platforms" for those creations and recombinations.

The problem arises when expertise creates a feeling of entitlement to control the entire visitor experience. Power is attractive. Being in control is pleasant. It lets you be the only expert with a voice. But if our expertise is real, then we don't need to rule content messages with an iron fist. As Ian Rogers has said, "losers wish for scarcity. Winners leverage scale."

Single voices represented on single labels is not scalable. I believe we need to develop museum "platforms" that allow us to harness, prioritize, and present the diversity of voices around a given object, exhibit, or idea. This does not mean we are giving all the power to visitors. We will grant them a few opportunities--to create their own messages, to prioritize the messages that resonate best for them personally--in the context of a larger overall platform. The platform is what's important. It's a framework that museums can (and should) control, and there's power in platform management.

When you think of a platform for user-generated content, you may not think of that platform as having power. But the companies that run YouTube, Flickr, and other major Web 2.0 sites have lots of power. There are four main powers that platforms have:
  1. the power to set the rules of behavior
  2. the power to preserve and exploit user-generated content
  3. the power to promote and feature preferred content
  4. the power to define the types of interaction available to users
These powers constitute a set of controls which constitutes a real and valuable authority. Let's take a look at each one and how it might be applied in museums.


1. The power to set the rules of behavior.User-generated content sites control user and community behavior, both implicitly through the tools that are and aren't offered, and explicitly through community management. Every Web 2.0 site has rules about acceptable content and ways that users can engage with each other--consider this article about the complicated and often highly subjective (read: powerful) Flickr community guidelines. These rules are not uniform, and their differences often influence the makeup of users who feel welcome and choose to engage.

When it comes to museums, comparable rules can guarantee that the museum remains a safe, welcoming place for visitors of all kinds. There are some "rules" already in place--like the rule that you have to pay to enter--that may have great effect on the types of users who engage in museums and the behavior they display within. Museums should consider, as Web 2.0 community managers do, what behaviors and visitors they want to support and which rules will make those people feel most at home in the institution.


2. The power to use and exploit user-generated content.
Platforms also have the power to set rules related to preservation and ownership of the content on them--often with quite strict IP statutes that favor the platform over users. Every time you post a photo on Flickr, you give its owner, Yahoo!, the right to use that photo however they see fit. The same is true on YouTube, and on sites like Facebook, which are "walled gardens," you can't even easily export your user-generated content (friends, events, updates) outside of Facebook itself.

Again, these rules reflect platform control, and when the control is too heavy-handed, users get annoyed and stay away. Museums will always need to retain some powers to manage the preservation of objects, to wield IP controls properly, and to manage the digital reproduction and dissemination of content. There are many models as well for what we do with user-generated content in the museum. There are some emerging case studies for this. The Smithsonian American Art Museum's current Ghosts of a Chance game is accessioning player-generated objects into a temporary part of their collection database, with clear rules about what happens to the objects at the end of the game (they are the responsibility of a sub-contractor). In the same way that Web 2.0 sites display a range of respect for user-retained intellectual property, museums can navigate and create their own rules--and related powers--for content developed by visitors on site.


3. The power to promote and feature preferred content.

When you go onto a user-generated content site like YouTube, you don't just see a jumble of videos. One of the greatest powers retained by these platforms is the power to feature content that reflects the values of the platform. These values may skew towards promoting content with the most popularity/views, the newest content, or content that is unique in some way. The choice of what to display on the front page is not just about design. There have been huge user-protests of both YouTube and Digg for perceived bias in the "featured content" algorithms that vault some content to the top. And while some sites strive for transparency, most find ways to feature the kind of content and behavior that they want to see modeled for other users.

This may be the most important platform power when it comes to museums because it is the one that allows the platform to present its values and model preferred behavior. And many museums are far from assuming this power. Most museum projects that allow visitors to create content only allow for the most basic of prioritization. Consider video kiosks where visitors can create their own short clips (a pet peeve of mine). Many museum video kiosks will feature clips from famous people but do nothing to prioritize and prominently display high-quality visitor submissions. The kiosks are organized by recency, not content value--and so new visitors walking up are not given a model for the kind of content the museum would most like to receive.

When museums do assume this power, it is often in a zero-transparency way that doesn't model behavior for users. When I spoke with Kate Roberts about MN150, the Minnesota History Center exhibition based on visitor-generated nominations, she explained that after the nomination period was over, they entirely shut down visitor engagement in the selection process. It just felt too messy to do anything but lock the staff in a room and sort through the nominations. When the exhibition opened a year later, visitors could see which nominations were valued and featured, but they couldn't get this information in an early feedback loop that would have allowed them to improve their nominations during the submission process.


4. The power to define available interactions.

This power is so basic that it is often forgotten. On YouTube, you can share videos. On Craigslist, you can buy and sell stuff. On LibraryThing, you can tag and talk about books. Each Web 2.0 platform has a limited feature set and focuses on one or two basic actions that users can take. Museums don't need to offer every kind of interaction under the sun--we just have to pick the few interactions that most support the kind of behavior and content creation that we value. Again, there's a lot of power in the decision of whether visitors will be allowed to contact each other, rate artifacts, or make their own exhibits. As long as you create a platform that is consistent in its values and the interactions provided, you will be able to control the experience as you open up content authority.


There are real opportunities here for museums to retain authority related to values, experiences, and community behavior. The power of the platform may not let you dictate every message that floats through your doors. But with good, thoughtful design, it can ensure that those messages enhance the overall museum experience.