Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Book Club Part 2: Timeliness

Quick. A local fire has devastated 200 local homes. A Russian spy has been poisoned in London. Tuberculosis is traveling business class. Pluto just got demoted. What does your museum have to say about it?

What do visitors expect of museums, and what do museums expect of themselves, when it comes to timeliness? What's more important, timelessness or timeliness? In chapter 6 of Civilizing the Museum, Elaine Gurian, Joy Davis, and Emlyn Koster share the process and conclusions of a three day conversation about timeliness in museums held at the University of Victoria in 2003.

The basic conclusion of the conversation is that timeliness in museums is "societally useful," especially in an era when museums are shifting away from being "refuge[s] of authority and stability" to "resource[s] for the public good." This is partially driven by museums, which want to be seen as "forums" for discourse, but also by the expectations of a media-saturated public. One of the things that most confounds non-museum folks about museums is the glacial pace of exhibit and program development; I've heard many friends (and some museum execs from other fields) ask why we aren't showing something immediately after a news event related to museum content occurs. In a world where everything is available up to the minute, museums' resistance to involvement doesn't communicate thoughtfulness or solidity--it communicates out of dateness. In the public eye, museums aren't compared to timeless entities like the ocean. They're called dinosaurs instead.

Of course, there's a basic tension for museums that feel both "the obligation to be reflective and considerate, and the seeming imperative to react to emergent issues." The good news about timeliness is that when it comes to news, the public doesn't expect fancy exhibitry; they expect recognition, exposition, and flexible interpretation. I'm always amazed to see visitors pouring over "SCIENCE IN THE NEWS" and similar clipping bulletin boards in museums. The authors share several examples of museums responding to current events, such as the National Air and Space Museum, which responded to the 2003 Columbia Shuttle explosion "by bringing a television set on the floor and stationing an expert to interpret the information for the public in real time." There are also other museums, such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Holocaust Museum discussed yesterday, that incorporate ongoing advocacy for content-related issues (conservation and genocide prevention, respectively) into their exhibits and programs, connecting the timeless to the right now. In the Aquarium example, staff found that giving visitors an opportunity for advocacy with a specific (and well-displayed) deadline encouraged greater participation than non-time specific advocacy; the chance for visitors to affect something "right now" is appealing.

More interestingly, the authors higlighted several museums that have attempted to work timeliness into their mission and ongoing operations. The Royal British Columbia Museum launched a (now defunct) Quick Response Team (QRT) initiative in which team members created exhibits and programs with the goal of being public-ready within one month of an event of concern. The Boston Museum of Science includes the Current Science and Technology center (CS&T), which puts up modular exhibits and revolving programs on contemporary science issues. As the authors comment,
Perhaps the most significant dilemma that confronts museums seeking to be timely is the capacity and willingness of staff to sustain such a commitment. While many staff embrace the notion that museums must be relevant, and therefore timely, their professional education and training, skill sets, disciplinary specialization, commitment to thorough, well-researched exhibitions and programs, and lengthy work processes all mitigate against rapid responses to emergent concerns.
To be timely, the authors argue, requires an institutional mindset that supports fast decision-making, engagement with controversial issues, exposition of works in progress, and time and training for rapid gathering and dissemination of content. The authors also suggest that maintaining strong relationships with external organizations and community groups as collaborators promotes both the development and successful deployment of such programming.

Perhaps most of all, to respond to contemprary events, museum staff need to be light on their feet, to have interest and ability to work flexibly and quickly. In the Royal British Columbia Museum's case, the QRT program was canceled "due to lack of curatorial resources and issue-related expertise." Many museum blogs have disappeared for the same reason; museum staff were unwilling or unable to create and manage content on an ongoing basis. It doesn't matter how much visitors love it if it's too hard for an institution to sustain based on fundamental priorities and abilities.

There's also a branding issue here. I was a visitor and employee of the Boston Museum of Science for several years without "getting" that CS&T was doing something fundamentally different and more timely than what was going on in the rest of the museum. To me as a visitor, it appeared to be just another area where I could interact with content and programs about science. I didn't differentiate that this was "the place" for fast-breaking news, and sometimes I was confused that the exhibits didn't seem as "developed" as those in other areas. Now that I know more about CS&T and some of the very cool forums and programs they produce, I understand that there's a fundamental difference. But as a visitor, how do you make the connection that your museum is now offering something more timely?

To some extent, timeliness is in the eye of the beholder. As the authors put it,
museum staff who are interested in the choice of relevant and timely topics need to ask: 'Relevant to whom?' For some participants, this very question of timeliness and relevance had to do with shared authority among partners, creating a standing relationship with members of the community, and breaking the traditional relationship between staff as authority and visitors as recipients.
Sound familiar? Ultimately, from the visitor perspective, timeliness and personal relevance may be intrinsically linked. Perhaps the best way to create an experience that visitors perceive as timely is to ask them for their ideas. Global warming is nothing new, but it's hot right now--so people perceive related exhibits and programs as timely. Similarly, content that expresses contemporary visitors' perspectives and reactions can breathe "now" into "then."

One of the striking things about Web 2.0 is the way that the connections feel immediate, evolving, and energized--even when the content is the same recycled junk about relationships or politics. In many cases, it's not the content but the attitudes with which content is presented that marks whether you are riding the crest of a new wave or adding to the fossil record. What do you think of as "now" experiences? Where's the "now" in your museum? Where do you want to see it, and where doesn't it belong?

Next week, Chapter 5, Choosing Among the Options: an opinion about museum definitions. Hopefully a timely choice considering the recent discussion on the ASTC listserv about the differences (semantic? real?) between science museums and science centers.

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