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.

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.